Makin’ Olives, Greek-Style

The alleged fruitless olive in the front courtyard is not. Fruitless, I mean.

This summer it bore a nice crop of smallish olives, very  much like the olives that appear on the old stock planted years before the state’s ban on olive trees went into effect.

Olive pollen is said to be too cruel to the delicate noses of allergic residents here, and so to protect the hapless, the beautiful and useful olive tree was made illegal. Eventually a nursery entered the breach with the Swan Hill olive, a patented sterile tree.

Supposedly.

The one I planted in the front yard must have been grafted onto fruiting stock, because in recent years about a third of the canopy has taken to bearing olives.

Well. I happen to have a recipe for curing olives without benefit of lye. Many years ago, a friend returned from Greece with instructions for how to cure olives in water. It’s very easy, though it takes a while.

Charley, scarfing olives

A-huntin' the wild olive...

Fresh off the tree, olives are too bitter to eat, because of their high content of phenolic compounds and oleuropein, which makes them pretty unpalatable. Except to dogs, that is… Charley the Golden Retriever, like Anna the Ger-Shep before him and Greta the Ger-Shep before her, loves the things and will scarf them up off the ground with great joy.

Last weekend was truly beautiful, and I was done in with work and an endless, miserable cold. So, watching Charley clean up the fallen olives, I decided to chuck the paper-grading and the writing and the editing and spend some time going back to the earth.

Olives FrontyardThe tree was heavy with olives, at least on the northwest side. The first step in curing olives, of course, is to get the olives. So I dragged the ladder around from the backyard, climbed up, and pulled off enough to fill a couple of quarts.

Charley thought that was just the business, since I probably knocked as many on the ground as I got into my collection basket. Apparently they don’t harm dogs—I’ve never had one of my dogs get sick from eating raw olives, and the pits just pass right through.

The next thing to do, after you put the ladder away, is to prepare the fresh-picked olives for a long soak.

For this process, the olives should be ripe—deep red or dark purple, but not mushy overipe. I’ve learned, too, not to use the ones that have hit the ground. They shouldn’t be bruised or contaminated with dirt. I washed my little harvest well in a sinkful of cold water and dilute dish detergent, then rinsed thoroughly.

Now here’s the pleasant part: this is where you get in touch with your ancestors.

The time-honored way of getting started—and it’s a very ancient way—is to sit outside in the shade of your lush olive tree and prepare your fruit for the next stage. Take a sharp knife and cut a single slash across the blossom end (opposite the stem) of each olive.

Slash oliveThis takes awhile. But it’s an amazingly soothing and calming process. There’s something zen about working with your hands in the way women before you must have done for thousands of years back into the Mediterranean past.

Every time I do something like this, I think how I wish I could live in Yarnell, making a living with my hands at some quiet, soothing craft. Would you buy my olives? Could I sell you some jewelry? Enough to keep the old miner’s shack warm with propane through the winter? Imagine spending one’s afternoons always in some peaceful, reasonably productive pursuit that does not require you to read student writing that grates your nerves or to dispense D’s and F’s to the authors of said works, that does not require you to meet deadlines, that really doesn’t ask much more of you than patience and a little facility with your hands.

Yes.

Cassie thought this was an altogether appealing idea and found the whole olive-slashing project pretty exciting.

Cassie would love it in Yarnell.

Charley in love?

Charley is easily distracted. He soon moved on from olive-hunting to the Tup-the-Corgi game. The trouble is, he doesn’t seem to quite know which end is…uhm…which. Half the time he tries to hump her head. Apparently he’s too young to understand what this is all about.

Make my day, mutt!

What Cassie understands about Charley’s obsession remains unknown. It is known, however, that she sometimes eggs him on, and it’s pretty obvious that she’s doing it on purpose.

Somehow, this wasn’t what I had in mind when, back in my hippie-dippie days, I used to sing along with with Buffy Sainte-Marie…

Gwine to be a country girl again,
With an ole brown dog an’ a big front porch an’…

Yeah. They still have those in Yarnell. And coyotes and cougars and javelina and skunks and rattlesnakes, all of which regard small brown dogs as fair game and your big front porch as something to sleep under.

Okay. So after you get all your olives slashed, your next challenge is to find a nonreactive container to hold them in. Glass or stoneware is best, though I’m told plastic will do.

Scavenging around the house, I came across the lifetime set of beverage jugs I’d bought at Costco. Glass, large, lidded, and easy to manipulate…perfect!

Instead of packing all of the olives into one of them, I decided to distribute the prepared fruit between two jars. This leaves lots of room for extra water. And since the jars are easy to dump and refill, two are no more trouble than one. In the past I’ve used large stoneware bowls. These work fine, too, but take up more room on the countertop, and to pour off the water you end up dumping everything into a colander in the sink, dirtying up a tool each day.

Bear in mind, this next phase of the project takes five or six weeks. So it’s convenient to use compact containers that are easy to haul around.

Place the olives in the container, whatever it is you decide to use, and cover them with cold tap water. Put some sort of cover over the top of the container, and leave it to sit in a cool place. I imagine you could keep it in the refrigerator, though presumably the ancient Greeks didn’t have refrigerators. Just depends on how authentic you choose to be, I suppose.

Now, each day for the next five or six weeks, pour the water off and refill the container with cold tap water. Do this every day, without fail.

About four or five weeks into the process, you can begin tasting the olives. When they no longer set your teeth on edge but instead have a nice Greek-olive flavor with a tang, it’s time to pack them in brine.

Wash the olives again, in a sink full of clean cool tap water.

Make a pickling solution, as follows:

4 tablespoons salt
2/3 cup vinegar laced (if desired) with lemon or lime juice
bottled water to make one quart

Do not use home-made wine vinegar, because its level of acidity is not reliable.

Gently pack the olives into clean, lidded jars. Add your choice of spices, according to your imagination. Possibilities include any and all combinations of the following:

garlic
celery seed
dried onion
rosemary
oregano
dill

You can, I’m told, substitute the juice from a jar of dill pickles for all or part of the water. However, in my opinion the very best way to flavor up these olives is to add, to your quart of pickling solution, 1 teaspoon of curry powder, 2 teaspoons of minced dried onion, and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper.

Leave about an inch or so of headroom in each jar after all the olives are covered in pickling solution. Then pour in about 1/2 inch of olive oil. If your jar narrows at the top, olive oil sahould cover the wider part below.

In my younger days, I used to store these at room temperature. Now that I’m older and wiser, I’d keep them in the fridge. It is impossible not to eat them promptly.

While you’re enjoying your first harvest of olives, read this and dream on.

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Deedee November 6, 2011 at 9:59 am

You make me wish for an olive tree or two. But I don’t think they’d do well in Montana. My Dad made olives one year with olives from a friend’s tree (in SoCal.) He used lye for curing them though. And thanks to your link I am seriously in envy of a life growing olives in NZ.
Well, I’ll return to my lazy Sunday now.

Linda November 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I had some home cured olives from Arizona and the were delicious. A couple months ago I went on an urban forage walk here in Chicago. At the end of the walk, we all had a tasty salad made up of greens we foraged. Passed around to accompany it was that jar of olives. The forage leader had made them herself while visiting out your way. Those olives were small, but delicious. As I recall, they were just packed in water and had no seasoning added to them. Thanks for this post; I had wondered how she made those olives and now I know!

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