Pressing the case for proper olives: Why the real thing is worth the hunt
The deliciously briny, juicy olives we eat on holiday can be hard to find at home, but Anthea Gerrie has made it her mission to seek them out.
Friday 08 June 2012
"My name is Anthea and I'm an Olivangelist," I imagine myself confessing as I surreptitiously nibble at my newly-purchased stash of briny, juicy little delights on the bus from Borough Market and muse on how my guilty pleasure has segued into an addiction.
Creating a Twitter handle (@olivangelist) just to rave about bagging a certain bitter black Tuscan variety or the Castelveltrano from Trapani, dubbed the world's best, is bad enough. Specially arranging meetings in London, 50 miles from my home, for a Thursday or Friday to dovetail with the limited opening hours of my olive seller is even more extreme.
But there are no lengths to which an olivangelist will not go to find a chewy taggiasco, a lemony petit lucque or a fabulous nocellara del belice, which looks as if its delicate green coat has been given a watercolour wash of Tyrrhenian blue. Even the Fresh Olive Company, whose own olivangelist, Bob, got me hooked on the Med's finest, then fed my addiction by introducing me to ever more rarefied species, doesn't sell all of them all the time. As for delis and supermarkets, few sell olives unadulterated by chilli or more unnatural partners, and many commit murder of the ancient fruits by dressing them with vinegar.
Olives – you love 'em or hate 'em, they say. But the truth is that many of us grow up hating them – unlike chef Jacob Kennedy of Bocca di Lupo, who never forgave Santa for giving him coloured pencils instead of the green olives he craved as a small child – only to have an epiphany in adulthood when we taste our first really good one. For some it's the olive in their martini, for others the almond-stuffed green queen on a tapas plate. For me it was the pungent, purple little bullets in the salade niçoise I tucked into every day for a beach café lunch in the South of France.
Given how holidays in the Med have become commonplace, it's a puzzlement that the great olives we tuck into at bars, cafés and street markets in France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco should be so hard to come by in Britain. Supermarket buyers and their suppliers seem to be oblivious to the quality of the fruit itself and preoccupied with immersing them in often unappetising over-spiced baths. Those which escape the clunky mixes often have the life pasteurised out of them, creating an anodyne product that promises not to bite the biter back.
It never occurred to me that the aim of all this tarting up might actually be to disguise the taste of the olive, elevated to literature by Horace and Homer and praised in the Koran, until a new entry in the supermarket stakes, Bodega, held a launch seminar to share its perceptions about how Brits view olives.
They categorised the customers they researched in focus groups by various stages of diffidence, from the Not Sure Crowd who have never really engaged with the grown-up snack, to Special Occasion Jane, who only gets olives in for parties. And all of them were worried about choosing the wrong kind: "I was surprised how frightened many people in Britain were of olives – like those who can't look at salami and want to cut the fat off a nice piece of San Daniele ham," says Vaz Frigerio, olive buyer for Continental Foods, which owns Bodega.
Frigerio really knows his olives – he can rave for hours about the noirs de Nyons, which the French call their black pearl, and the Throumba Thassos from Greece he says taste of cigar and leather. I was thrilled to find Bodega had packaged nocellara, my favourite green, for its fresh bite and barely cured flavour, for the novice olive shoppers of Sainsbury's. But I was horrified to find the life had been pasteurised out of it, which Frigerio says is vital to make packaged olives safe for mass consumption – "it's that or acidifying them," he claims.
It's also, he confesses, a ploy to get the diffident Brits, who don't get the sour-bitter payoff the olive is all about, to eat them at all: "I just want to get them to start the journey so I can introduce them to some more unique olives down the line, so I made a compromise," he says. "The aim is to give customers the confidence to try, via an on-pack flavour scale which tells them what to expect." This seems the very opposite of the street market suck-it-and see approach that gets real olive lovers hooked in the first place.
The right olive can be a joy to cook with as well as snack on. The black Provençal olive is as indispensable to Boeuf à la gardiane as orange rind, thyme and red wine, the milder, larger green Moroccan to a classic chicken tagine as chunks of preserved lemon. You can't have a Greek salad without kalamatas, or a salade niçoise without the olive of the same name.
But anyone who doubts that olives are a joy to eat unsullied by other flavours as an aperitif needs to get an olivangelist of their own. On days when there were no taggiascos – even Fresh Olive has trouble shifting these bitter black Ligurian delights, apparently – Bob turned me on to gaeta, another tiny Italian olive with an intriguing taste of blackcurrants. When petits lucques were out of season, he introduced me to the Sicilian noccellara, which are the most addictive of all. I have found them everywhere from the street stalls of mainland Italy to Vienna's Naschmarkt, but the closest I could come outside Borough Market – and Bodega's emasculated pack – are the Pugliese sold by Carluccio's, which have a larger stone and are not quite so fine.
Real olive addicts will stop at nothing to get their fix, like the food writer Marlena Spieler, who has written a book about olives. She grew up with them in California's Central Valley, and knew what she had to do when coming across a wooden cart of oily black ones fresh from the tree in Catania Market: "I bought enough sea salt to cure them, then emptied my suitcase at the hotel. I lined it with plastic bags, the olives and the salt and tossed them every day or so. Two weeks later I returned home, and after another week I had to throw the suitcase away – but I had perfect salted olives."
More practically, she recommends tossing oil-cured black olives in a jar with red pepper flakes, a little extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice: "They're ready right away." She also likes to pour the brine off lean, green Cypriot olives and marinate for 3-5 days with cracked coriander seeds, diced lemon and chopped garlic.
But most of all I like her idea of adding a spoonful or two of black olive tapenade into mayo as a sauce for a rare lamb sandwich. Tapenade alone is one reason to learn to love the olive – and worth travelling to Provence to pick up fresh on market day.
Where to get the best
Fresh Olive Co, Borough Market Accept a taste of anything it offers
Riverford Organic Now packing superb, fruity kalamatas as well as a good mix of organic black and green olives, spiced with coriander seeds and garlic
Sainsbury's Some branches sell the divine, barely salted petits lucques in season
Good Italian delis Look for cerignola from Puglia. In Carluccio's, ask for "Pugliese"
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