One of the strangest things I’ve ever done with regards nature is pick olives, in London, in the middle of winter. It’s a true story, but then it is 15 degrees here today and the daffodils have also started blooming.
Of course over in Provence the harvest takes place in November and December and probably a little earlier in southern Greece. But to find these little black friuts here in London really is a delight and of course … a little strange.
The olive fruit is a green drupe, becoming generally blackish-purple when fully ripe. A few varieties are green when ripe and some turn a shade of copper brown. The cultivars vary considerably in size, shape, oil-content and flavor. The shapes range from almost round to oval or elongated with pointed ends. Raw olives contain an alkaloid that makes them bitter and unpalatable.
The larger olives reserved for eating are cured in a brine solution of 10 percent salt to one litre of water for six months. Once the olives are calibrated, the ones not for eating are cold-pressed into oil using the same method that’s been used for centuries. It takes 5 kilograms of tanche olives to make a litre of oil. Trees yield an average of 15 to 20 kilos of olives. After the olives are washed and crushed into paste, the paste is pressed; out comes the first oil and vegetation water, which are separated by decantation. This is the first cold-pressed extra-virgin oil with a sourness rate of less than 1 percent, the best.
Olive fruits that are to be processed as green olives are picked while they are still green but have reached full size. They can also be picked for processing at any later stage up through full ripeness. Ripe olives bruise easily and should be handled with care. Mold is also a problem for the fruit between picking and curing. There are several classical ways of curing olives. A common method is the lye-cure process in which green or near-ripe olives are soaked in a series of lye solutions for a period of time to remove the bitter principle and then transferred to water and finally a mild saline solution. Other processing methods include water curing, salt curing and Greek-style curing. Explicit directions for various curing and marinating methods can be found in several publications including Maggie Blyth Klein’s book, Feast of the Olives.
There is so much that surrounds the olive and its oil, it’s history, its culture and its culinary wonder. See Naomi Smith’s Ode to Olives for lots of juicy insight!