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Monday, August 8, 2016



The olive (Olea europaea) is a species of small tree in the family Oeaceae found in much of Africa, the Mediterranean Basin from Portugal to the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula from southern Asia as far east as China, as well as the Canary Islands, Mauritius, and Re'union.  The species is cultivated and considered naturalized in the countries of the Mediterranean coast as well as in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Java, Norfolk Island, California, and Bermuda.   
 The olive tree is an evergreen tree or shrub native to the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa.  Olives belong to a group of fruit called "drupes" or stone fruit.  They are related to mangoes, cherries, peaches, almonds, and pistachios.  The olive's fruit, also called olives, is of major agricultural  importance in the Mediterranean region as the source of olive oil, one of the core ingredients in Mediterranean cuisine.  
Olives constitute one of the world's largest fruit crops with more than 25 million acres of olive trees planted worldwide, greater amounts than either grapes, apples, or oranges.  In the U.S. where most cultivation is in California there are 5 major varieties that are commercially produced:  Manzanillo, Sevillano, Mission, Ascolano, and Barouni.  There are hundreds of varieties of olive trees, but they all belong to the scientific category of "Olea europea".  Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean as well as parts of Asia and Africa. 


The olive tree as we know it today is believed to have had its origin 6000 to 7000 years ago in the region corresponding to ancient Persia and Mesopotamia.  The olive plant later spread to present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

My Story:

Growing up Italian there were usually olives around.  I remember a cousin that loved olives so much they would call her "The Olive Kid".  Her name was Joanie.   I also remember my father telling the story of how olives were pitted by machine and the resistance from workers who hand pitted olives.  My favorite, though, is when little kids will remove the stuffing from pitted olives and then put the olive on their fingers.  My granddaughters did that, but I guess all kids do it.

Olive Curing:

Olives are too bitter to eat right from the tree. They must be cured to reduce the bitterness.  
Processing methods vary with olive variety, region where they are cultivated, and the desired taste, texture and color.  Some olives are picked unripe, others are allowed fully ripen on the tree.  The color of an olive is not necessarily related to its ripeness.  Some start  off green and turn black as they ripen.  Others start off green and remain green when fully ripe.  The olives are typically green in color when picked  in an unripe state, lye-cured, and then exposed to air as a way of triggering oxidation and conversion to a black outer color.  
There are 3 basic types of curing, water-curing, Brine-curing, and Lye-curing:

Water-curing:  submerging in water for several weeks or longer.  Water-cured olives typically remain slightly bitter  because water-curing removes less oleuropein than other curing methods.

Brine-curing:  submerging in a concentrated salt solution.  Greek style olives in brine and Sicilian style  olives in brine are examples.  

Lye-curing:  Submersion in a strong alkaline solution.  Lye-curing is usually done in a series of sequential steps.  Up to 5 steps may be required to cure the entire olive from skin to pit.  Dark style ripe olives and green olives are examples of lye-cured olives.

Health Benefits:

Greek-style black olives, Spanish-style green olives, Kalamata-style olives, and many different methods of olive preparation provide us with valuable amounts of many different antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients.   The high monounsaturated content of olives has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.  
Many of the phytonutrients found in olives have well documented anti-inflammatory properties.   The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of olives make them a natural for protection against cancer, because chronic oxidative stress and chronic inflammation can be key factors in the development of cancer.  
Olives are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants.  Studies show that they are good for the heart and may protect against osteoporosis and cancer.


Olive oil has long been considered sacred.  The olive branch was often a symbol of abundance, glory, and peace.  The leafy branches of the olive tree were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures as emblems of benediction and purification.  They were used to crown the victors of friendly games and bloody wars.  Today olive oil is still used in many religious ceremonies.  Over the years the olive has been the symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, power and purity.

Selecting and Storing:

 Olives are traditionally sold in jars and cans, but are now often offered bulk in large barrels or bins.  Buying bulk will allow you to purchase small amounts to try out different varieties.   Whole olives are common, but you may also find them pitted and even stuffed with peppers, garlic, or almonds.  When buying bulk, purchase from a store that has a good turnover and keeps the olives submerged in brine to retain freshness and moisture.  
It is not uncommon to find olives that include green, yellow-green, green-grey, rose, red brown, dark red, purplish-black and black.  There are also several textures including shiny, wilted, or cracked.  In general regardless of the variety you choose, select olives that still display a reasonable amount of firmness and are not overly soft or mushy.

Canned olives can be transferred to a sealed container in the refrigerator and kept for one to two weeks.  Glass jars of olives can be stored directly in the refrigerator for the same period  and in the case of brine-cured olives for up to one to two months.

Easy Uses of Olives:

  • Olive tapenade is a delicious and easy-to-make spread that can be used as a dip, sandwich spread, or topping for fish or poultry.  To make tapenade put pitted olives in a food processor with olive oil and your favorite seasonings. 
  • Toss pasta with chopped olives, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs.
  • Add chopped olives to your favorite tuna or chicken salad.
  • Set out a small plate of olives with some vegetable crudites to eat with the meal.

So........ Eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.

Simple but good:

Greek Salad

4 cups salad greens
2 TBS chopped mint
3 TBS crumbled feta cheese
2 TBS chopped olives
1/2 cup garbanzo beans
1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 TBS red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine first 5 ingredients
Toss with olive oil and vinegar
Add salt and pepper to taste.

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