Olive trees have been growing prolifically in the Mediterranean for as long as 6,000 years, making it the world's oldest cultivated tree.
Olives come in a large variety of shapes, colours and sizes, but it is the little black olives that are so beautiful to cook with. Green olives are delicious, too, but I prefer to eat them on their own – fat, fleshy and drenched in olive oil. Some of my other favourite varieties include the Italian frantoio, and rosciolo, the Spanish manzanillo and the French picholine.
All varieties of olives have their very own specific flavour and tastes, which lend their own particular character to cooking but also to the large and complex olive oils that we are so lucky to have access to.
Olive trees have a tenacity that is undeniably impressive, managing to survive in some of the harshest climates – and I find the fact that their branches are an important symbol of peace very moving. In my small back garden I have a young olive tree that has not yet produced any fruit; I am told that I must wait five years. My impatience is, however, tempered by the fact that this sturdy little tree will outlive us all.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, www.petershamnurseries.com
Fennel and broccoli roasted with olives
Broccoli is growing in profusion at the moment in our vegetable garden at Petersham (pictured top), and now is undeniably the best time to eat it. I never tire of roasted fennel, and its aniseedy flavour works well with the olives. This is a perfect vegetable accompaniment for white fish such as bass or halibut. Cooking with olives gives dishes a depth and richness of flavour, working well in chicken casseroles or slow-cooked lamb dishes. Throw them in just before the end of cooking so their flavour is not too overpowering.
600g/11/4lb broccoli, rinsed and trimmed of any fibrous leaves
3 fennel bulbs, tough outer leaves removes and sliced into quarters lengthwise
1 dried red chilli, crumbled
80ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
The peel of one unwaxed lemon
15 little black olives
Heat your oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Put the broccoli and fennel into a bowl, pour over the olive oil and season with the salt and dried chilli. Toss together well. Place the mixture in a roasting tray, tuck in the lemon zest and cover tightly with aluminium foil. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and roast for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and scatter over the olives. Return to the oven and cook for a further 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly and serve. This dish is lovely served at room temperature with a little grated Parmesan, a squeeze or two of lemon juice and a drizzle or two more of extra-virgin olive oil.
Tapenade is a black-olive paste that originates from Spain – it's delicious simply spooned on to bread, used as a salad dressing, or merely to dip little raw vegetables into. Rich and deep in flavour, it should be used sparingly so it does not overpower its companions. This needs neither salt nor pepper, the warmth being provided from the dried chilli, and the salt from the anchovies and olives.
I particularly like to pair the tapenade with a young goat's curd and very slowly roasted tomatoes – the sweetness of the tomatoes contrasts really nicely with the slight saltiness of the olives. Make it as close to the time of eating as possible.
Serves 4-6 (as an accompaniment)
150g/5oz pitted black olives
3 good-quality anchovies, such as Ortiz
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 dried red chilli, finely chopped
100ml/31/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
A squeeze or two of lemon juice
Finely chop the olives, or pound them with a pestle and mortar, then place in a bowl. Chop the anchovies very finely and add to the bowl along with the garlic, parsley and chilli. Spoon over the oil and mix well, and finish with a little squeeze of lemon juice.
Fig and black-olive relish
I enjoy making pickles, jams and relishes and this one takes no more than a few minutes. It works particularly well with cheese – its sweet, salty flavour cutting through the richness of a strong cheese. Here I have paired it with Gorgonzola, but it also works really well with a powerful cheddar such as Montgomery's.
Makes one jar
100g/31/2oz little black olives stored in olive oil
250g/8oz dried figs
750ml/11/4 pints of full-bodied red wine
2 bay leaves
1 small sprig of thyme
The peel of one unwaxed lemon
First, prepare a sterilised jar (ideally 500ml/17fl oz in capacity) by putting it through the dishwasher. If the olives have stones in them, remove them by pressing down on the skin and thus releasing the flesh from the stone. Rinse the figs under cool running water and tear in half. Place the wine in a small saucepan over a medium heat, then simmer until it has reduced by half. Mix the olives with the figs and spoon into the jar along with the bay leaves, thyme and lemon peel. Remove the wine from the stove and allow to cool slightly, then pour over the figs and olives. Let it sit in a cool place for a week before using.