Olives, Lawrence Durrell wrote, have “a taste as old as cold water.” I must have read that 1,000 times. It turns up with about the same frequency as the Rombauers on ham (“A definition of eternity: A ham and two people”) and Clifton Fadiman on cheese (“Milk’s leap to immortality”). But, admire as I do its sound and pace, I’ll be damned if I can figure out what Durrell is talking about.
Taste an olive and see what I mean. Unless it’s one of those California “ripe-blacks” (really more gasket than foodstuff), what you’ll taste is pungently bitter and salty with just a hint of vegetal sweetness in the background.
It is a forceful flavor, a flavor that takes some getting used to. It is a flavor that jolts and awakens. Compare it to a cold shower, not old cold water.
A good part of that is due to the way olives are made. Because olives in their natural state are inedible (poisonously bitter because of the high level of a chemical compound called glucosides), they must be cured. Except for California olives, that is usually done either by packing olives in salt or soaking in a salt brine. After the initial treatment, the olives can be packed either in olive oil, vinegar or more brine. Flavorings such as garlic, herbs or a citrus can also be added.
But you’ll rarely find any of that information on the label. Olives are almost always sold by place name. Rather than calling an olive “green, brine-cured, lemon-flavored,” you’re more likely to find “Nafplion"--even though there is another “Nafplion” olive that is flavored with hot peppers. I know, it’s Greek to me too.
And though I am sure there are people who can tell a black, brine-cured Kalamata from a black, brine-cured Amfisa in a blind tasting, I think that’s a talent a bit like picking wines from various vineyards in Burgundy--acquired only through extensive practice and intense concentration. Life is too short.
So it may take a bit of sleuthing to find the olive you want. But learn what to look for, ask the right questions and, most importantly, taste with abandon, and it can be done.
The first clue, of course, is color. Black olives are ripe and have developed, complex flavors. Green olives are unripe and tend to taste fruitier and a bit more lively. It’s like the difference between raisins and grapes.
Next, with black olives, see whether the olive is shriveled (indicating a dry salt cure) or round (brine-cured). Dry-cured olives tend to have a deeper tang and to be less exuberantly salty than brine-cured. Green olives are almost always brine-cured.
Finally, check the solution in which the olives are packed. Naturally, if they’ve been stored in olive oil, they’ll have a mellower, olive-y taste. Vinegar solutions give a more overt tang, and brine solutions are saltier.
Given this, you can begin to make some decisions about which olives to buy. In cooked dishes, olives are usually used as a sharp accenting flavor, much like capers. Use either greens or brine-cured blacks or, for a mellower, darker flavor, dry-cured black olives. For an appetizer, use either dry-cured or flavored olives, maybe with some fresh chevre , a baguette and a bottle of chilled red wine (having your cold water and showering too?).
“I know of nothing more appetizing on a very hot day than to sit down in the cool shade of a dining room with drawn Venetian blinds, at a little table laid with black olives, saucisson d’Arles , some fine tomatoes, a slice of watermelon and a pyramid of little green figs baked in the sun. . . . In this light air, in this fortunate countryside, there is no need to warm oneself with heavy meats or dishes of lentils.”
When it comes to olives, give me Elizabeth David any day.
In this recipe from “Paula Wolfert’s World of Food” (Harper & Row: 1988, $25), baking mellows the flavor of these olives, and the aromatics bring out wonderful hints of other subtle flavors. She recommends using greenish-purple Atlanti or Royal olives, which are large, round and cracked.
8 to 10 ounces drained Greek Royal or Atlanti olives
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small clove garlic, cut up
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons aged red wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon Greek or Sicilian oregano
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (with few seeds), crushed, or 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper
In bowl soak olives in several changes of water to remove salt. Rinse and drain olives. Place olives in shallow 8- to 9-inch baking dish. Add white wine and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bake olives at 375 degrees, stirring several times, 40 minutes, or until olives glisten and are somewhat swollen.
Remove olives from oven and pierce each with tines of fork.
Pound garlic and parsley in mor +tar with pestle until smooth paste forms. Mix with vinegar, remaining oil, oregano, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Add olives and let stand in mixture several hours. Roll olives in paper towels before serving to remove excess oil. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
178 calories; 1244 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 grams protein; 1.46 grams fiber.