Native to the Mediterranean area, the olive tree has long been considered sacred and a symbol of peace. The silvery-leafed tree is classified in the same botanical family as the lilac and the ash; its shape and size can vary greatly but it can reach up to 45 feet in height and will yield about 30 pounds of olives per year. While olive trees are grown in several subtropical areas, two thirds of them are still concentrated in Europe, around the Mediterranean. In France, that means Provence; and while olives and olive oil seem to show up at every provençal table, market or farm, it is quite surprising to find out that only half of one percent of all olive trees in the world grow up in France!
Barrels and barrels of olives. Olives are harvested for two different uses: to make oil and to consume as table olives. Some varieties are almost exclusively used as table olives and a stroll through a provençal market will convince you that there is more to olives than just green and black! A typical olive merchant will offer fifteen to twenty different kinds, glistening in the sunshine, all sold by weight and contained in large wooden vats. Of course, sampling is the best way to get acquainted with the fruit but, before you book yourself on the next flight to Nice, we will give you a few tips that will enliven your conversations with the locals. For this purpose, we will only focus on "olives de bouche" (table olives) since olive oil deserves another discussion. Three different elements separate olives among themselves: color, variety and preparation. Many people already know that all unripe olives are green and that, if left to ripen on the tree, they will eventually turn black. The olive harvest spans the months of October through January and the fruits can be classified in four categories, depending on their maturity at the time of harvest:
Olives vertes (green olives): these have reached their normal size but they are picked in October, at the beginning of the ripening cycle.
Olives tournantes (turning olives): these show a deep pink or brownish color and are harvested in November before complete maturity.
Olives rouges (red olives): these are almost ripe, show a glistening skin of reddish-black color and are picked in December.
Olives noires ridées (wrinkled black olives): these olives are wrinkled on the tree and not picked until fully ripened, in January.
So, really, the color of the olive only shows when it was picked. However some varieties just taste better when harvested in their "green stage". Here are some of the varieties of olives that one is apt to spot in French markets:
Salonenque: green, pear-shaped, nicely fruity and slightly bitter, with tender flesh.
Picholine: green, long and pointy, crunchy, fleshy with a rustic flavor.
Lucques: green, crescent-shaped, fine and smooth flavor, fragrant and meaty.
Grossane: tournante (half-green, half-black), pronounced flavor, somewhat bitter.
Cailletier (or "Niçoise"): brownish-black, tiny fruit, very delicate taste.
Tanche: excellent black olive, thick meat. The Tanche has almost become a standard; this variety is used to prepare olives de Nyons, the only ones to enjoy an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée.
Transforming an inedible fruit into a wonderful treat. The first man (or woman) who ever picked and tasted an olive must have been blessed with great culinary imagination because fresh olives are totally inedible! Regardless of color or harvest time, fresh olives contain a glugoside that makes them unpleasantly bitter. Therefore, they must undergo a "debitterisation" process to neutralize their glucoside. Different methods can be used to achieve the desired result but all of them require some expertise because many factors influence how long it takes to leach out the bitterness from the fruits. In one method, green olives are cracked (the skin, but not the pit, is broken with a mallet) and covered with water; the olives are drained and the water changed everyday for a couple of weeks or longer. They will retain some bitterness. Another method calls for the olives to be covered with a paste made with wood ash and water; they are stirred daily for a week; then they are washed and covered with fresh water; then comes the daily rinse/change of water for another two weeks. These olives will have some residual bitterness, but not as much as when using the water-only method. A third method pretty much leaches out all bitterness from the fruit as the olives are completely submerged and stirred in a water-lye mixture for a few days, then rinsed several times in cold water; they also need to soak in water for a few more days. Very black (ripe) olives can also be leached out by pricking their skin with a pin and covering them with rock salt; this process takes about three weeks; the olives are then rinsed and dried on racks. Whichever curing method is used, the olives are finally packed in olive oil or in a brine of water, salt, and spices.
A feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Making an olive palatable is only the first, albeit essential, step: next comes the art. It is interesting to note that olive professionals are referred to as "confiseurs" in French, just like candy-makers. And indeed, an olive aficionado checking out all the barrels of olives at the open-air market will feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store! Each vat is filled with olives of different varieties, different colors, seasoned in different ways, whole or cracked, pitted or unpitted, stuffed or not. Some of the combinations have become classics, although every merchant will use their very own recipes: olives in lemon and bay leaf; with bell pepper, celery and coriander; with herbs of Provence and pimiento; with fennel; with roasted garlic; in escabèche sauce; stuffed with anchovies, peppers or almond, etc... Olives make a wonderful appetizer as they cleanse the palate and wake up the taste buds. They also serve as a versatile cooking ingredient: their slight bitterness works as a counterpoint to the richness of some dishes (a duckling with olives is out of this world) and their distinctive flavor adds another dimension and transforms an ordinary dish into something truly special. It may not be an obvious combination but olives pair surprisingly well with fish: choose green olives for a firm-flesh fish such as cod, black ones for fish that has an assertive flavor on its own (sardines, for example). Both green and black olives work well with chicken. A veal breast stuffed with olives, simmered in white wine and tomatoes is a very popular dish in Southern France, as well as beef daube with olives. Often paired with lamb in the Middle-East, they also complement quiches, omelets and scrambled eggs. Indispensable in salade niçoise, they add a new layer of flavor to an onion-potato salad dressed with a piquant vinaigrette or to a simple tomato salad with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and chives. And let's not forget the green and black tapenades, also called "caviar of the poor"! This flavorful olive-caper-anchovy spread can replace Dijon mustard in salad dressings. It complements white meat, rabbit, pork, omelets and pasta dishes. It can even replace butter on the "mouillettes" (bread pieces) dunked in soft-boiled eggs. Serve it on toasted baguette slices with your favorite apéritif; for an elegant and tasty appetizer, spread some tapenade on store-bought puff pastry, roll and cut in 1" slices; brush with an egg-wash, bake and serve warm. Or offer a slice of zucchini and tapenade tart: sauté zucchini slices in olive oil, season with salt, pepper and herbs of Provence, spread a pie shell with a layer of black tapenade, cover with the zucchini slices, then top with grated Gruyère cheese and bake at 375º until the pastry is golden brown. A dear friend of mine once served me a wonderful piece of sturgeon fillet that had been marinated in olive oil with a touch of soy sauce; he then simply grilled it and topped it with a thick "line" of black tapenade: simple, yet so perfect! With so many possibilities, you owe it to yourself to break away from the insipid "California ripe" olives and try something more exciting (unless you really like to play with your food and fit them over your fingertips). Some upscale grocery stores have built "olive bars" that feature nice selections of olives from many parts of the world. Or sample the large selection of Arnaud olives offered by Joie de Vivre.
Our recipes with olives:
Cheese and Olive Pâté-Pâté au Fromage et aux Olives
Salade Niçoise-Salade Niçoise
Beef with Olives-Boeuf aux Olives
Chicken Breast with Olives Niçoises-Paillards de poulet aux Olives Niçoises
Duck with Olives and Mushrooms-Canette aux Olives et aux Champignons