As more people learn the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet so the choice of olives and their oils have become more readily available. But the value of olives has been known for thousands of years and in the Mediterranean they have been growing on for as far back as 3,000 B.C. Olive trees can reach heights of 50 or so feet and often live for 500 years or more.In fact I do believe that the oldest known olive tree has been standing in Canneto, Sicily, Italy, for the past 2,000 years and is protected by the European Union.
This was one of the reasons that I went in search of one to grow in my garden in France thinking that it would lend architectural texture and that it would remain as my legacy to Parthenay and indeed to France. My mum thought it was such a good idea that we packed ourselves into my car and went off in search of about a dozen of them. We went from nursery to nursey and were told that olives are not keen to display their fruit in the centre of France, preferring the sunnier climbs of the south. Armed and disappointed with this information, my mother quickly lost interest in planting a dozen trees devoid of fruit seeing that there was no point to it. And so my olive tree legacy went unfulfilled.
If you were to take a trip through an olive grove as I have on a number of occasions sat atop a horse, you would learn that the olive begins as a yellowish green colour. As it continues to grow it takes on a more deeper green and some varieties grow to black or even dark purple. They are harvested often by first laying netting upon the ground beneath the trees, then trashing the branches to encourage the fruits to drop. Or with the use of a fork like tool that gently removes them from the trees.
Ripe olives are easily bruised and so once they are picked olives for the table are quickly cured or brined before being shipped all over the olive-hungry world.
some of our favourite Italian olives
Here are some of the most popular varieties of Italian olives for your table. Serve them either as appetisers or incorporate them into all sorts of recipes. We may even have a few ideas for you.
Bella de Cerigonola is a very green, relatively large and reliably meaty but sweet olive. They are crisp and fantastically buttery and go especially well with garlic, cheese, capers, and anchovies. These are great for pickling and preserving.
Gaeta olives as picked by Enzo, are often black and wrinkly, smooth and purple but usually salty and quite sharp. A fabulous addition to many pizzas and salads. Gaetas can be either dry-cured (shrivelly, chewy) or brine-cured (plump, juicy). I like them served over spaghetti with capers and pine nuts, or simple served out of bowl for snacking.
The taggiasca olive grows in the Italian region of Liguria, a few miles away from France’s Niçoise olive region, and the olives are indeed similar. These olives are often very small and come in shades of brown or dark purple and are very sweet. They’re usually cured with an aromatic mixture of bay laves, rosemary, and thyme.
Castelvetrano olives are Italy’s most ubiquitous snack olive. Bright green, they’re often referred to as dolce (sweet), and come from Castelvetrano, Sicily, from the olive variety nocerella del belice. They have a Kermit-green hue, meaty, buttery flesh, and a mild flavor. Consider serving them with sheep’s milk cheese and a crisp white wine. They are large, green, very sharp and often marinated with herb and stuffed with pimiento or anchovies.
Once you have taken ownership of your olives they are best served at room temperature, but store in brine, water or olive oil in the fridge until you are ready to use them.
Italy is one of the world’s largest olive growers and as with Spain and Greece, many of the olives are pressed into olive oil. This is so for our olives that come to us from the olive growers of Vallecorsa.
the 5 different grades of olive oil
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The first olive produced from the first press which is fragrant and full of flavour with an acidity level of no more than 1%. Enzo and I use it everywhere and have been pleasantly surprised at the different extra virgin oils there are. Drizzle it over pasta, salad, cold meats – everywhere!
- Virgin Olive Oil
Less fruity and lighter virgin olive oils are less acid, but not as robust as the virgins.
- Refined Olive Oil
Made from lower quality virgin oils which are often chemically treated to remove any flaws in their flavour or aroma. Generally used for cooking and making dressings.
- Pure Olive Oil
These are a blend of virgins and refined oils which are very mild in flavour. They work perfectly well for cooking, marinating or for making salad dressings.
These oils are made from all of the residues of previous pressings. They are often bland in flavour but can be used for cooking, dressings and deep frying.
How to store olive oil
Which ever you choose, store your olive oils in a dark cool place where they will be rather happy for up to 2 years. So don’t be tempted to store them in the fridge – they solidify or turn cloudy or both.
We have come to understand that olive oils are a great source of the antioxidant Vitamin E and have been linked with lowering blood pressure. They are also linked with lowering the level of LDL (bad) cholesterols in your body. They also increase your bodies absorption of vitamin A, D and K.
So you see the humble yet historic olive has a great deal to offer and I often wonder at the folly of listening to my mother who was looking forward to pressing the odd olive or two every year in order to drizzle a little over her salads. We could have at least bought one tree to plant – regardless of fruit.