Olives to me are a reminder of summer flavours and warmer climes. Bite into an olive and straight away you're transported to the warm waters of the Aegean, the dry hills of Greece. You could almost imagine lying under an olive tree, watching angry centaurs hurl amphorae of wine at British film crews, in town to record crap like "How to Turn a Goat Pen into Your Mediterranean Holiday Home!" for the Lifestyle Channel. Such is the evocative power of the olive!
Their meaty, salty flavour has made them popular around the world, and here in New Zealand, the drier parts of our countryside play host to sizable tracts of land devoted to their production. Olives are a familiar sight on the shelves of our supermarkets, deli's, and community markets; it beggars belief to think that it wasn't so long ago that they were considered, in this country anyway, quite a rarity.
A wee while ago, I ended up with a couple of buckets of olives. In their natural state, they are quite unpalatable, due entirely to the presence of a chemical compound called oleurophin. This makes them extremely bitter, a handy trait because it dissuades birds and insects from eating the fruit, giving them a chance to develop. Soaking in brine enables the oleurophin to be leeched out, rendering it edible.
There are a raft of tried and true brining methods; some use chemicals such as caustic soda; some involve fermentation. A common feature of all techniques was the use of salt. After some research, the one I liked best was that used by the lads at Moon Over Martinborough - their method employs nothing but water (and a little rock salt towards the end). It was the easiest and certainly the most straightforward. This is how it went...
The first step in the process is to make two or three slits in each fruit with a knife; this allows the water to work its way into the interior and begin leeching the oleurophin from the olives.
Once done, put your olives into a bucket of water. Leave them for forty days, changing the water every two days - it's that simple.
Once the forty days has elapsed, pour off the water and cover your olives with rock salt - leave for a good couple of days. During this time, hunt down some jars and lids, if you haven't already done so.
Now, tip the olives into a big colander and wash thoroughly in cold water to remove the salt & its residue. You could eat them now, or better still, marinate them.
There are a vast array of ingredients you can use to marinate your olives: coriander seeds, peppercorns, sage, thyme, cumin seeds, citrus zest - if you think it'll add to the flavour of the olives, hurl it in. Place your marinade ingredients on top; I used orange zest, lemon zest, fresh rosemary, bay leaves, a few cloves of smashed garlic and a couple of torn, dried chilies. Place your olives in a large container, then toss them with your marinating ingredients so that they're coated. Tip them into your sterilised jars and pour olive oil (don't use anything flash; a pomace or similar cheapie will do just fine) over the contents, right up to the brim. Cover, then place somewhere cool and dark to infuse for at least a couple of weeks (they're good for up to six months).
I ran out of jars and had to use a couple of plastic prep containers to hold the excess, and so these were the first to be ripped open and devoured, just a few weeks ago! When yours are ready (remember to allow at least two weeks - they'll smell fantastic), make yourself a little antipasto platter. Along with the olives, add some feta, some vine-ripened tomatoes, a little chorizo, some fresh, crusty bread - whatever you can get your hands on. Grab your little feast, find a nice, warm spot in the sun and eat hearty. Or sit and eat while watching Jersey Shore. However you enjoy your olives, savour that taste of summer - it's not that far away...
- Photos from a field trip I went on to The Village Press, outside Hastings, from a couple of years ago: click
- Want to try a great NZ-made olive oil? Try Moon over Martinborough: click