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The olive bar: dressed for success.

"The whole Mediterranean ... seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water."

--Lawrence Durell, Prospero's Cell

That now-famous quote above is still one of the best descriptions of the taste of a ripe olive that I've ever read. Curiously so, too, because once olives give up their liquid gold into olive oil, scores of adjectives are used to describe the flavor--ranging from grassy and herbaceous to nutty and fruity. It is also curious that, given all the attention paid to olive oil, arguably one of the cornerstones of the gourmet retail business, too often scant notice is given to the olive, one of the oldest foods on earth. While it is true that most food stores offer olives, either in jars, pre-packed, or increasingly in bulk in the form of an olive bar, they are still largely undermerchandised and underutilized in the store's prepared foods. This is only fully apparent when one encounters a truly great display of olives merchandised by people who understand olives, love them and use them in their daily lives. Since bulk olive displays are typically set in the deli/charcuterie/prepared foods section, this seemed like a good place to discuss gourmet olive selections.

Although our attachment to the olive tree (Olea europaea) and the olive here in the United States is strictly decorative and culinary, respectively, the olive on its home turf, that of the Mediterranean Sea and the countries that touch it on all sides, is part of a holy trinity that includes grapes and wheat, a triumvirate that through history has influenced virtually every aspect of daily life in that region. It is true that medicinally, cosmetically and in its culinary use, olive oil has traditionally been far more important and versatile to the people of the Mediterranean, but olives on their own are nevertheless highly regarded and consumed with relish at various times throughout the day. They are especially enjoyed as an accompaniment to aperitifs and gossip in tapas bars, tavernas and other such meeting and drinking establishments throughout Mediterranean Europe.

It is believed that wild olives were gathered by early humans as far back as 10,000 years ago, and we are fairly certain that olives have been cultivated for more than 6,000 years, beginning in what is now Syria, and quickly spreading around the Mediterranean Sea. Their cultivation was particularly encouraged by the ancient Romans who planted grapes, wheat and olives wherever they went in order to provide food for their legions. Eventually, the olive traveled to the New World where it has become firmly ensconced in California, Mexico and South America. Although California growers are now producing some very fine olive oils, the canned olive industry there resulted in generations of Americans not really knowing the true taste of traditionally cured olives from the Mediterranean.

Among misconceptions about olives by consumers is that green and black olives are different varieties, and that ripe olives can be eaten from the tree, the latter easily dispelled by trying to eat one directly from the branch. The truth is that while certain varieties have proven themselves more suitable to being picked green and others ripe, all olives start out green and only darken as they mature on the tree. In other words, if an olive is picked green, it will be a green olive, and if it is allowed to ripen, it will be a black olive ("black" olives actually range in color from light brown to purple to black). The quality of any olive depends upon the variety, the conditions under which it is grown, how and when it is harvested and the method in which it is cured. The best-quality olives are picked by hand. This method, when done by skilled and experienced growers, ensures that the olive is picked at just the desired degree of ripeness and that it will be unbruised. Some producers use machinery to shake the trees or simply beat the branches with sticks to release the olives. Unfortunately, although much cheaper, these methods result in spotty quality, and as the olives fall to the ground, they get bruised, which leads to bitter, off flavors.

There are three basic methods of curing olives, "all of which aim to remove the bitter glucosides that are present in raw olives that render them inedible. Large-scale industrial olive producers employ a lye bath to leach out the bitterness. This method also tends to leach out most of the flavor, leaving soft, mealy olives that taste more like the can they are packed in than olives. Olives produced for the specialty market are cured using either a traditional brine method, a dry-cure (in salt) method, or a combination of the two. Salt takes longer to make the olives edible--several weeks or months, but it leaves the flavor and texture intact, ready to be eaten out of hand or incorporated in recipes. Too many retailers, however, put out their bulk olives as they come out of the container, and although the olives are ready to eat at this point, they are so much better if they are rinsed of the brine, coated with good extra-virgin olive oil and dressed with any number of aromatics, including citrus peel, garlic, hot peppers and herbs.

To increase olive sales, give your customers many ideas for including them in recipes, as well as ideas for dressing them at home. Olives are wonderful in salads, stews, on pasta, and of course, in antipasto and tapas selections accompanied by cheese, cured meats, nuts and crusty bread. Take your olives out of the case and dress them for success. You'll not be disappointed.
Black Olive Tapenade

Serves 6

Tapenades, or simply pastes made from
black or green olives, olive oil and any number
of aromatic ingredients, such as anchovies,
capers, lemon, mustard and herbs and spices,
are extremely versatile and delicious. They
are one of the best ways to show off the
quality of your olive selection. They are
limited only by your imagination and the
varieties of olives at hand. In her wonderful
book The Feast of the Olive. author and
restaurateur Maggie Blyth Klein offers this
version of a simple, yet slightly pungent
tapenade that she recommends for dipping
parboiled or raw vegetables like fennel bulbs,
green onions, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli,
or cooked artichoke leaves into.


  4 anchovy filets
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
  2 tablespoons capers, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
  1 tablespoon Dijon mustard


In a blender, food processor, or mortar,
combine the anchovies, olives, capers, olive
oil and mustard. Blend or grind with a pestle
until thoroughly mixed.

If the tapenade is too thick, drizzle more
olive oil into the mixture as you continue
to blend (or grind with a pestle) for a bit

Zucchini (Courgettes)
in Tomato Sauce

Serves 6

From The Melting Pot: A Quick and Easy
Blend of Israeli Cuisine by Tami Lehman-Wilzig
and Miriam Blum (published in Israel
by Palphot Ltd.), this recipe is a great way to
use up an abundance of summer squash.


  6 medium zucchini (or 12 small ones)
  3 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup chopped onions
  2 garlic cloves, chopped
  2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  1 red pepper, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 cup green olives, pitted and halved
  3 tablespoons tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
    Salt and pepper to taste
    Pinch of fresh thyme


Wash and dry zucchini and remove
stems. In a large, deep pot, heat the oil
and fry the onions and garlic for about
seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Add
peppers and chopped tomatoes and fry for
another three minutes. Sprinkle with the
sugar and stir. Add zucchini. Cover and cook
over medium heat for 15 minutes, turning
occasionally. Stir in olives, tomato sauce
and water, and cook until soft. Uncover
and cook until some of the liquid has
evaporated, Serve with sour cream, yogurt,
or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Chicken in Olives

Serves 4

This recipe is also from The Melting Pot.
Olives and olive oil figure prominently in
the cooking of Israel and the Middle East.
They say some olive trees in Israel are one
thousand years old yet still bear fruit.


    1 large chicken, cut into pieces
    3 tablespoons olive oil
    1 large onion, diced
    2 garlic cloves, crushed
    3 large tomatoes, peeled and crushed
      (or canned)
    1 cup pitted green olives
    3 tablespoons tomato juice
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
  1/2 cup dry white wine


Preheat oven to 350[degrees] F. Season chicken
parts with salt and pepper and bake in a
greased baking pan for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a heavy pot, fry the onion
and garlic in oil for about 7 minutes, or
until soft. Add remaining ingredients. Cook
covered on a low heat for about 10 minutes.
Remove chicken from oven and cover with
fried onion and olive mixture. Bake covered
with aluminum foil in a 325[degrees] F oven for 30
minutes. Uncover and bake for another
10 minutes. Serve hot with rice or pasta.

For further research and many
great recipes, there are two excellent
resources on olives. The first, The Feast
of the Olive (Chronicle Books) by Maggie
Blyth Klein, is easily the best, most-complete
book on the subject of olives
and olive oil. Her recipes are classic (see
below) and her writing is inspired. She is
also the co-owner of famed restaurant
Oliveto ("olive grove" in Italian) in
Oakland, Calif.

Also check out the magnificent Olive
poster from Celestial Arts (Ten Speed
Press) composed by Peggy Knickerbocker
and designed by Ed Anderson. No better
and handy reference exists for a wall in
your store or office.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Stagnito Media
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Charcuterie Corner
Author:Mellgren, James
Publication:Gourmet Retailer
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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