Consider the olive. The olive tree has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, starting in the eastern Mediterranean. Trees can live and bear fruit for as long as 1,000 years. The Greek word for olive, elaia, is the root of the word “oil.”
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of olives to early Mediterranean societies and to our modern culinary world. And, it’s amazing olives became so widely used so long ago, because fresh olives are essentially inedible due to their high levels of bitter phenolic compounds.
Prehistoric peoples discovered that the bitterness could be removed by soaking the fruits in changes of water. That discovery is fortuitous in another way: Soaking olives in water is probably what led to the early discovery of olive oil.
The flesh of olives is as much as 30 percent oil, which those early folks were able to extract through simple grinding and draining. They used it not just for cooking but also in cosmetics and to light lamps. By Roman times, the debittering process had been shortened from weeks to hours by the addition of alkaline wood ashes to the soaking solution. Olives are fermented in brine when still green (the “Spanish” style) or after they’ve ripened and their skins turn dark.
Some types of black olives are brined without any preliminary debittering, but the fermentation process is different. It’s done at low temperatures and takes as long as a year to complete. Some of the phenolic substances leach out during the process, but these olives (Greek, Italian Gaeta and French Niçoise) retain a pleasing degree of bitterness and have a uniquely winey, fruity aroma.
The California canning industry invented tinned unfermented “ripe black olives,” olives that are actually made from green olives repeatedly treated with lye solutions and then chemically treated to give them their black (ripe appearance). I loved them as a child – particularly because I could stick them on the tips of my fingers, pretend to be a monster, before slowly eating them one by one.
But as an adult, I now find their chemically treated blandness no match for more traditional types now available locally. Olive stands at Mediterranean outdoor markets are an incredible sight. Dozens of bins display an astonishing variety, from olives as small as a pencil eraser to giants the size of a man’s thumb. There are all different shades of green and almost as many shades of black, as well as a host of others, from brownish dun to reddish purple. Some preparations are spicy and hot, some mild, some tart and some salty. I always want to try each kind but never have the courage to ask busy vendors to bag tiny quantities of 30 or more varieties.
Though I’ve yet to see as extensive an olive display in American farmers’ markets or groceries, the Montvale Schnuck’s offers quite a nice variety; other groceries or Italian specialty stores, such as downtown’s Italian Food Mart on Monroe have several varieties beyond pimento-stuffed green and chemically treated and pitted blacks.
If you visit Italian groceries or Whole Foods stores in larger cities such as St. Louis or Chicago, even more will be on display, and you can taste before purchasing. I’ve counted over 20 varieties, many with different stuffings at St. Louis’s Whole Foods.
Interesting as all those preparations are, however, they’re only a tiny part of the olive story. Today, about 90 percent of the world’s olive crop is used to make oil. There are several grades of olive oil. The best is extra-virgin. Not long ago, most Americans had never heard the term. Now, however, it’s so common that it’s sometimes referred to simply as EVOO.
So, what exactly is extra-virgin olive oil? Though it may sound like a bad joke (similar to being “slightly pregnant”), it’s actually a designation for the first cold pressing of olives that have been mashed with their pits into a paste and mixed for 20 to 40 minutes to release their oils. Lesser-quality oil is produced by secondary pressings (virgin), heating and then pressing again (labeled simply olive oil). The lowest grade, pomace oil, is produced from heated pits. Even within the “extra-virgin” designation there are wide variations in quality, taste and price.
Years ago, I experienced this firsthand at a small family-owned olive grove in New Zealand. Before my visit, I’d never thought of New Zealand in connection with olive oil. Though the world’s olive crop is still concentrated in the Mediterranean, other places with appropriate climates (including California) are beginning to produce outstanding oils.
Athena Olive Groves, in New Zealand’s Waipara Valley, is owned by a cheerful husband-and-wife team, the Clausens (his mom manages the tiny retail shop). It’ll be several hundred years before the trees match the gnarled ancient beauty of their Mediterranean ancestors. The Clausens’ press, however, is an old one imported from Tuscany. The couple explained that many large modern pressing facilities, even though their product qualifies as extra-virgin because the first pressed oil is not heated, produce a degree of warmth in the mashing and pressing that affects flavor. Their small press works so slowly that no heat is generated.
It was unlike any I’ve experienced. I’m not even sure I’d have known it was olive oil if I’d tasted it blind. Light and delicate, the aroma reminded me of that of a freshly mown lawn. Most of Athena’s oil, like that of other fledgling kiwi producers, is consumed domestically, though with luck that will eventually change. Currently, however, most exports are limited to visitors like me, who stash as many bottles as possible in their suitcases. Even so, many more varieties of olive oil are becoming easily available here. I usually have three or more on my shelf. Try different kinds to find your preference – flavor components vary much as wines made from different kinds of grapes grown in different soils. Save the best (and most expensive) oils for drizzling on finished dishes or to make uncooked preparations such as vinaigrettes – and keep on tasting to find one that is to your palate’s liking – and that fits within your budget!
If you find yourself in St. Louis, an excellent place to begin your search is Vom Fass in Maplewood. The shop room is filled with floor to ceiling casks. Many – probably most – are filled with olive oil, but others contain unusual vinegars and spirits such as whiskeys and brandies, cordials and other liqueurs. The helpful staff is always available to work with you as you taste.
Vom Fass is located at 7314 Manchester Road in Maplewood. For more information, call them at 314-932-5262, or visit their website: http://slmo.vomfass.usa.com.
- 12 large pitted black or green olives
- 6 T. softened butter
- 2/3 c. flour
- 3 egg whites
- 1 1/2 T. whole grain mustard
- Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Cut olives into thirds crosswise, spread in single layer on baking sheet, bake until slightly dried out, 5-7 minutes.
Mix butter, flour; add egg whites, mustard, salt, mix until well combined.
Line baking sheets with parchment. Using 1 tablespoon batter, spread with an offset spatula into thin even circle, about 3 inches. Place olive slice in center.
Bake, rotating pans halfway through, about 20 minutes. Let stand in pan a couple minutes, then cool on rack. Makes about 30.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.