My Love of Olives
Story and illustrations by Swati Mhaiskar
When I was a student in India, my little black and white geography textbook with its neat hand drawings taught me that California has a unique climate where olive trees, grape vines, and many tall conifer trees grow. The words “conifers” and “olives” fascinated me. I knew what conifers looked like, but I had never seen an olive tree. It was exotic and mysterious to me.
On coming to America and then to California, I had my first opportunity to see an elegant olive tree. Beautiful, plump, oval olives were hanging delicately on its branches, and in my enthusiasm, I plucked one, thinking its darker shade meant its ripeness would be perfect. But as you might have guessed, it had an appalling taste, nothing like the olives mentioned in my geography textbook or those in the jar I bought at the farmers’ market. Maybe the tree was an ornamental, I tried to tell myself. This tasting experience was not following the law of freshness at all!
At the library I learned that olives must undergo a curing process to transform the fruits into tart, meaty gems. When soaked in water the olives give up the bitter-tasting compounds by osmosis, leaving the soaking water a murky brown. With time in a brine bath, the olives undergo lacto-fermentation and become a healthy probiotic food as they are transformed by our essential friends, the good bacteria necessary for gut health.
Commercial producers often take a short cut using a lye treatment to reduce the bitterness. Lye is sodium hydroxide, and recipes for lye curing come with warnings about the need to use safety glasses and protective gloves. This does not sound body friendly in any way, and also, there is no fermentation involved, therefore no probiotic benefit.
Olives are loaded with antioxidants and anti-cancerous compounds, and they are rich in monounsaturated fats, which are good for our hearts. Olives offer a spike to our taste buds and flavor to a dish. Olive trees are non-demanding and low maintenance. They can survive drought, fire, and disease, and an average of 500 years.
During the winter ripening season, many olive trees in home gardens go unpicked, and we see their fruits lying on the ground. When we harvest these prized fruits for ourselves and our neighbors, we become active in the cycle of food production in our community. Curing olives at home is fun and easy, and at this time of the year, olives are waiting for you on neighborhood trees or at the farmers’ market. Have a harvest party. Pick and pickle them. Cured olives sitting in pretty jars make wonderful gifts. Spread the love with home cured olives this festive season. It’s simple and sweet. Love + i = Olive!
1 pound green or medium ripe olives (Make sure the olives are unblemished and do not have tiny holes that indicate olive fruit fly damage.)
Cold water for soaking
½ cup rock salt or sea salt
4 cups mineral water
¼ cup fresh lemon juice/ white wine vinegar (optional).
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Optional flavorings: 2 lemons, sliced or wedged, 4 rosemary sprigs, 4 bay leaves, 6 garlic cloves (peeled), 2 jalapeño peppers (each cut in 2 vertical parts), 4 thyme sprigs
1 clean 32-ounce glass jar with a screw top
Cracking and Soaking: Pick or buy olives and wash them. Using a mallet or stone, crack each olive one at a time on a board to just split it open (try not to crush the pit) and immediately drop the olive into a wide pot or bowl filled with cold water. Once all the olives are cracked and swimming in the water, place an inverted dinner plate on the olives so they will remain submerged in the water and not oxidize. Change the water twice daily for at least three days. Tasting an olive before you brine them will tell you if they have soaked long enough.
Brining: To make the brine solution, combine the salt and mineral water in a large glass bowl or stainless steel pot, stirring until salt is dissolved. Add lemon juice or vinegar, if you wish. (You can always make more brine, if you need it, using a ratio of one part salt to eight parts water.)
Wash and sterilize a large glass jar with a lid. https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_01/sterile_jars.html
Place a lemon slice at the bottom of the sterilized jar. Then drain the soaked olives and add them to the jar in layers with any of the optional flavorings you would like. Leave 1 inch of space at the top. Now fill the jar with the brine solution leaving some room at the top. Drizzle olive oil on top of the brine solution to deter air exposure. Close the lid tightly. Store the jar in cool, dry, dark place.
Waiting: Brined olives may be ready to eat in as little as a month. Fish one out and try it. If you don’t find it pleasant, wait another month. Brined olives need no refrigeration and will last for 1 year. No addition of preservatives is needed.
Points to consider:
- If olives are medium ripe and not firm green, prick each with a fork or slit with a knife instead of cracking them, since cracking these softer olives will turn them pulpy. If they are very ripe, soft, and black, they should be dry salt-cured instead.
- Distribute olives into multiple jars so you can try different flavorings added to each jar.
Swati Mhaiskar works in farmers’ market marketing and vendor recruitment. She is passionate about encouraging direct face-to-face interactions between farmers and consumers. She wants to promote sustainable agriculture and work on building stronger communities, where from the very little ones to the senior members of the society, everyone is involved and connected and no one is left out. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org