Green or black? Nearly everyone has a preference when it comes to olives! But did you know that there's more than just color to differentiate the many varieties? There's the mild and nutty French Picholine, for example, and the strong, sweet, Spanish Picual. There are olives from Africa and Israel, Egypt and Greece. Of course, there's also the California Mission olive and a host of Italian olives used making for distinctive olive oils. Even if you're not interested in becoming an olive (or olive oil) connoisseur, you may enjoy exploring the varied tastes of olives—whether you're slicing a handful onto your pizza or dropping one into your martini.
Olives are the fruit of a small evergreen tree or shrub, related to lilac, jasmine, forsythia and ash. One olive tree in Portugal has been carbon dated to 2,000 years old. Olive trees prefer hot weather, and they tolerate drought, thanks to their extensive root system. They're native to the eastern Mediterranean, Asia and Africa. Cultivation began in Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina in the 16th century. California—where cultivation began in the 18th century—is the center of olive production in the United States today.
Long a symbol of peace, glory, abundance, fertility, power and purity, olive leaves were used to crown the winners of ancient games and wars, and olive oil was the eternal flame of the original Olympic games.
A good source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fats, polyphenols and flavonoids, olives also provide some fiber, iron and copper.
Fresh olives are hard and very bitter, not eaten until after they've been processed to reduce the bitterness. This usually involves a curing process in which they're soaked in a brine.
Olives are available whole or pitted, fresh or in jars. The flavor of olives differs with varieties. Among thousands of cultivars, you'll find mild, strong, sour, pungent, smoky, bitter, salty and acidic olives. Just some of the options to explore:
- Greek olives include Amfissa (a table olive with a protected designation of origin [PDO]), Kalamata (a large black olive, cured in red wine vinegar, also with PDO status), and Koroneiki (a small olive with a high yield of excellent oil).
- Spanish olives include Manzanillo (large, with purple-green skin, slightly smoky, used for stuffing with pimientos), Arbequina (a small, brown, slightly bitter olive), Cornicabra (used mainly for oil), Empeltre (slightly bitter), Hojiblanca (grown for oil, also slightly bitter), and Picual (the most widely cultivated olive in Spain, strong and sweet).
- From France, olive varieties include: Picholine (medium, green, elongated, tart and nutty), Nicoise (small, black-purple, with a robust flavor) and Lucques (large, green, elongated, mild and nutty).
- Italian olives include: Bosana, Frantoio and Leccino (all mostly for oils), Cerignola (big, meaty olives with a slightly sweet flavor, excellent for antipasti and for stuffing) and Biteto (sweet with almond tones).
- Iberian olives are packed in brine, often stuffed with pimento or anchovies.
- Gemlik comes from northern Turkey. It's a medium-sized olive, and the flesh easily comes away from the pit.
- Souri olives are from Lebanon; these are aromatic, with a high yield.
- Maalot, from the eastern Mediterranean, is a medium-sized, round olive with a fruity flavor. It's grown for oil production.
- Mission olives originally came from the California Missions, though now they're grown throughout California. These are black and used for table consumption.
Olives are a favorite pizza topping, of course. Try Kalamata olives with tangy artichokes on this Mushroom Artichoke Flatbread Pizza. Or use olives to top fresh bread, like Focaccia with Olives and Rosemary. Olives are a natural on salads and with pasta, too. Artichoke Parmesan Pasta combines Kalamata olives, capers, fresh basil and artichoke hearts with zesty lemon juice for a fresh pasta dish.
Tuscan Tuna Nicoise is an elegant version of a classic dish, featuring artichokes, olives, fresh herbs and bright citrus flavors. Olives partner perfectly with grilled tuna, too, when used to create Grilled Tuna with Olive Relish. Or combine them with garlic and cinnamon to create a spicy tomato sauce for serving over flaky white fish, as in this Mexican Halibut Veracruz.
The flavor of olives is strong enough to shine alongside meats. Spanish Pork and Chorizo Stew with Olives is a rustic stew that's easy to put together and adaptable to whatever fresh, local foods are available. Chicken and seafood are also enhanced by olives. Tomatillo Gazpacho is an unusual gazpacho with sweet shrimp and salty olives. Speaking of unusual—as in fabulous—be sure to try Chicken with Green Olives & Prunes for a celebration of sweet and savory flavors.
Black olives, which are fully mature, are harvested in December, and green olives, barely mature, are harvested in October. Pink olives (which are a rosy brown color) are riper than green but not fully mature. These are harvested in November.
If buying in bulk, olives should be in clean containers. The olives should be free of mold and not dry.
Liquid in jars of olives should be clear, not cloudy.
Store olives in their brine or liquid in jars or containers in the refrigerator. Retrieve them with a clean utensil, not your fingers (or you may contaminate the liquid).