Let’s look at the olive: a world of flavors, virtues and recipes

Olives are as delicious as they are versatile and genuine. Learn more about olives and their surprising qualities. Let’s take a quick look at the most widely known varieties and their endless recipes.
The olive is the fruit of the Olea europaea, a tree cultivated in Italy and in many Mediterranean countries, both for its priceless olive oil and its flavorsome fruits. We Italians rank high among consumers of olives, and also among the producers and exporters of olives. Thanks to the generous work and commitment of very many regions, throughout the country, Italy ranks third after Greece and Spain as a producer of olives within the European Union.

Which are the most famous olive varieties?

Before looking at the most popular varieties, we should remember that the olive that we might enjoy in a cocktail glass, or as a finger food, is not the kind of olive that we use to make olive oil.
There are three types of olive cultivar: the “olive oil” (or “millstone”) cultivar, the “dining” cultivar and the “dual aptitude” cultivar; the latter olives are excellent both as a finger food and as a source of olive oil.
Olives to be used as a food tend to be bigger than those grown to produce olive oil. They have more flesh and less oil.

Very many varieties of “dining” olives are grown in Italy. One of the most popular is the Ascolana tenera DOP olive (of the Marche region), a juicy, green fruit generally consumed filled, and fried in a breadcrumb jacket. We also note the green fleshy Bella di Cerignola DOP and Sant’Agostino varieties (of the Puglia region), and the large green Santa Caterina olives (from Tuscany).

Let us now turn to “dual aptitude” olives, the most famous of which is the green, round DOP Nocellara del Belice olive (from Sicily), the Oliva di Gaeta (or Itrana) which is large and pinkish (from the Lazio region). Carolea (from the Calabria region) is black and hard; the large black Giarraffa olive (Sicily); the black Leccino (from Tuscany); and our own Taggiasca, also known as Cailletier (black with nuances ranging from green to brown and purplish, small but fantastically flavorsome).

Let us now look beyond Italy’s borders to the Mediterranean basin, with the Greek Kalamata, Chalkidiki, Koroneiki and Athinolià topping the bill, alongside the Spanish Gordal Sevillana, Hojiblanca and Arbequina olives.
ciotolina con olive nere

What’s the difference between green and black olives?

The color of olive skins changes according to the cultivar or season. It may change from green nuances during the summer, when the fruits have fully ripened, to blackish-purplish during the winter, when not fully ripened.
All olives start out green. They turn black either because they’re riper, or due to oxidization on processing.
In certain cases ferrous gluconate (E579) is added to black (stoned and dehydrated) olives. Ferrous gluconate artificially blackens the fruit and hardens the flesh. This additive, often associated with poor quality olives, is always specified on the label.

The period for harvesting “dining” olives starts in September and October, ending in November and December. They are generally harvested by hand from the branches before fully ripening. This is why they are initially of a straw green color. They darken later, during processing.
While a seasonal fruit, olives can be enjoyed throughout the year, thanks to the processing and preservative techniques to which they are subjected.

How are olives preserved and processed?

Have you ever tasted an olive immediately after it has been picked? If you have, you will remember just how disappointing the flavor is. It’s rather unpleasant and decidedly bitter. Don’t blame the tree! It does the best it can, of course! Blame the oleuropein! Oleuropein? It’s a polyphenol present in the fruit and foliage. While rich in precious healthful properties it also brings with it a bitterish, pungent taste.
Before tasting, the olives must first be “pickled”, i.e. subjected to a treatment to remove the bitter flavor (this process is also known as debittering).
raccolta olive
Pickling is required as a means of reducing the quantity of oleuropein and endowing the olives with a pleasing sweet-and-sour or semi-sweet taste. This industrial procedure entails various activities depending on the type of olive treated and the typical features of the area in which the processing takes place. That said, there are basically two debittering methods – either in water alone or with caustic soda.

The water method can also be considered the ‘do-it-yourself’ or ‘farmstead’ method. The olives are soaked fully under water. The water gradually absorbs the bitterness, and must be changed twice a day over a period of at least 15 days. This method enables us to check and assess the level of bitterness desired, tasting the olives from time to time until the desired flavor has been obtained.

The caustic soda method entails filling a container with water and adding the soda, which is stirred until it is fully dissolved. When the solution cools, the olives (after cleaning and washing) are added. They are to soak fully under the water for 8 or 10 hours (stir them from time to time, and cover with a cotton cloth). Wash them three or four times to remove the soda solution.

These olives are now ready to undergo the preservation treatment stage. Age-old peasant traditions and expertise, still with us today, indicate three key techniques for preserving olives: in salt (dry salting), in pickle brine (wet salting) and in olive oil.

1. Preservation in salt consists in filling a glass container with alternating layers of olives and of salt, with the top layer salt.
2. Preservation in pickle brine consists in soaking the olives, in an airtight container, in water, salt and aromas.
3. Preservation in olive oil, generally only for black olives following treatment in salt, consists in placing the olives in a glass jar under extra virgin olive oil with, in the event, fragrances.
raccolta e scelta olive

Healthfulness multiplied!

In olives and extra virgin olive oil we find amazingly healthful nutrient actions, contributing to our bodily wellness.

1. The portion of monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid − considered “good” fats because they help lower “bad” blood cholesterol levels (LDL) − reaches 75%. Olives in our diet protect us against possible cardiovascular conditions.

2. Olives present an abundance of antioxidant substances, which protect us against the cellular aging caused by free radicals. Among these substances we find, notably, hydoxytyrosol, a phenolic compound endowed with anti-tumoral properties, beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor, which protects our skin and our retinas against ultraviolet radiation, and lutein, a carotenoid, also protecting our vision.

3. Olives ensure adequate levels of iron (enhance iron absorption by consuming the olives together with vitamin C sources) and other mineral salt levels (such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium). Olives also ensure adequate levels of fibers and vitamins (above all, vitamin E). Sodium levels − to be monitored for persons presenting hypertension or water retention − depend on how the olives have been processed.

4. Olives protect our digestive system (stomach and intestinal walls), and aid digestion (thanks to their emulsifying action on ingested fatty foods, contributing to the digestibility of meals as a whole). Finally, olives stimulate the appetite (this is why they’re such a marvelous aperitif treat!).

Generally speaking, since they’re larger, green “dining” olives contain larger portions of water, mineral salts and fibers than are found in black olives. For their part, black olives contain more monounsaturated fats, and more phenolic compounds. They are therefore endowed with more potently antioxidant properties.

There is also a difference in calorie content (140 and 235 calories in green and black olives, respectively).
focaccia con le olive

Olives − a byword for variety!

Thinking of olives, we must not forget just how versatile they are! The list of ways to enjoy them is endless!

1. Enjoy them ‘as is’, as a finger food that is not only delicious but also lightweight and healthful, when out for an aperitif with friends (as an alternative to foods like French fries).
2. Olives can be used as a special ingredient to ‘add zest’ to any number of recipes: mixed salads and salads in general, seafood salads, rice salads, stuffed vegetable dishes, savory bakes, pizzas, toasted bread pieces seasoned with garlic, olive oil and salt, and any number of first courses.
3. Why not, as a special treat, add olives to the dough of your home-baked bread? Or flat ‘focaccia’ bread?
4. Olives can be homogenized for sauces, for Mediterranean-style canapés or some other original treat!

Any personal preferences? Let your imagination take over!