Food and Drink: The flavour of the Mediterranean - Uncured they taste disgusting, but there's nothing like well-prepared olives - pungent and salty - to breathe southern life into your food

HAVE YOU ever eaten an olive straight from the tree? No? Well, don't. They are unutterably vile. It's a mystery how anyone ever even imagined that they might be made palatable, let alone chanced on the method. Luckily they did and one of the quintessential flavours of the Mediterranean came into being. The method itself is not so very complicated, but it takes time and a degree of confidence in the result.

Commercially cured green olives are usually soaked in a soda solution to draw out the ferociously astringent bitterness, then finished in a heavy brine. Home-curing is a slower process. For at least 10 days, the olives are soaked in water that is changed daily. Then they need to be submerged for a further month or so in a brine strong enough to float an egg, before they are ready to eat. For long-term keeping, they will be bottled in fresh brine, or olive oil with perhaps some added aromatics for extra oomph.

If you can lay your hands on fresh green olives, you might be tempted to try your hand at home-curing. My local Cypriot greengrocer imports them around this time of year and I've had a couple of fairly successful bashes at DIY.

I've yet to experiment with fresh black olives, but should you come across a ready supply later on in the winter (black olives are merely fully ripened fruit, usually picked around late January or February), here's how it's done, courtesy of Anne Dolamore from her book The Essential Olive Oil Companion (Macmillan): wash them well, then mix with an equal quantity of sea-salt. Pack into a sack or container which will allow the juice to flow out, weigh them down and leave for a month.

For most of us most of the time, however, the how-to of home curing can be of no more than theoretical interest. We're far more likely to be buying prepared olives. Though we may not be offered the variety available in your average Mediterranean market, the choice is still wide if you care to shop around. Some brands of tinned or bottled olives are very good, but more are decidedly second-rate. It's far safer to head for a shop where you can taste before handing over your cash. If local supplies are sparse, the Fresh Olive Company of Provence (081-838 1912) will send very classy olives by post.

Quality aside, much depends on your own preferences and specific requirements. Olives come in all sizes and states. For cooking, your best bet is a plainly preserved variety with a fine, true flavour. Pitted olives may take less time to prepare but they are rarely as tasty as those on the stone. The flesh of green olives nearly always clings tightly, so I usually lazily opt for large ones to minimise the amount of time spent fiddling. Black olives vary considerably in this respect, but the riper and softer they are, the easier they should be to pit. The quickest method is to bash each one firmly with a wooden spoon, splitting it open to reveal the stone, which should then slip out neatly. This takes a little bit of practice - at first you may find a disconcerting number shooting across the kitchen - but I promise you that it works admirably once you master the knack.

On the whole it's best to add olives to a stew or sauce only in the final stages of cooking. Prolonged simmering spoils their texture, while the sauce may sup up too powerful a whiff of olive. This is particularly important when olives are very salty (although all olives will add some salt to the dish) or have been stored in vinegar. To dampen salt content without ruining the taste, the olives can be briefly blanched first. Cover with water, bring up to the boil, then drain and run under cold water. Taste and repeat the process if necessary.

Tapenade

Olive pastes, pates and purees abound in delicatessens these days, but Provencal tapenade is the grand-daddy of them all. It has many uses, the simplest being as a relish spread thinly on toast, or as a dip with crudites. It can be dolloped on grilled fish or chicken, or smeared over a whole fish to be baked in the oven. For a softer flavour, mash hard-boiled egg yolks with an equal quantity of tapenade and pile back into the halved egg whites to make Oeufs a la Tapenade, or use to flavour mayonnaise or butter.

Adding the tuna in this recipe mutes the flavour slightly, but is by no means essential. Ideally, small black wrinkled Nicoise olives should be used. Note that '8oz black olives, pitted' means 8oz black olives weighed with their stones and then pitted before use. Serves 8

Ingredients: 8oz (220g) black olives, pitted (but weighed with stones)

1-2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1oz (30g) drained capers

1 1/2 oz (45g) anchovy fillets, roughly chopped

2oz (60g) tinned tuna fish (optional)

1tbs lemon juice

1tbs brandy (optional)

8tbs olive oil

pepper

Preparation: To make in a processor, whizz all the ingredients together, gradually trickling in the olive oil. Without a processor, chop all the solid ingredients together, then pound to a paste in a mortar, gradually incorporating lemon juice, brandy and finally the olive oil. Be very generous with the pepper.

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Puttanesca sauce - 'whore's sauce' - is supposed to have emerged from the backstreets of Naples; it is so called because of its salty pungency and vigour. It certainly packs a powerful punch. There's no need to serve Parmesan with it as it really doesn't need any embellishment. Gaeta olives are the favoured choice, but any good black olive, salty or sharp, works well.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 3fl oz (85ml) olive oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1lb (450g) tomatoes, peeled and

roughly chopped, or a 14oz (400g) tin

of tomatoes

1tbs tomato puree

1tsp sugar

4oz (110g) fat black olives, pitted

3oz (85g) anchovy fillets, finely

chopped

2oz (55g) capers, rinsed

1 dried red chilli, snapped in three

1tsp dried oregano

2tbs chopped fresh parsley

salt and pepper

1lb (450g) spaghetti

Preparation: Put the oil, garlic and chilli into a pan, and cook gently until garlic begins to colour. Add the anchovies to the pan and mash over a low heat for a minute or two until they dissolve. Now add all the remaining sauce ingredients except parsley, salt and pepper.

Simmer for 10-15 mins stirring occasionally, until thick. Taste while it cooks, and if it is getting too fiery, dredge out some or all of the bits of chilli. Add salt only if necessary, and a little black pepper.

Cook the spaghetti as usual in plenty of salted boiling water. Drain thoroughly and tip into a serving dish. Top with the puttanesca sauce, reheated if you made it earlier.

Turkish Olive Bread

I found this recipe in John Midgley's The Goodness of Olive Oil (Pavilion). It's the quickest of olive breads to make, though really more of a savoury batter pudding than a bread. Serve it hot or warm (from the oven or reheated), to accompany a first course, or with drinks. Dried mint makes a fine alternative to oregano or rosemary.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 2 eggs

8fl oz (220ml) milk

1 1/2 tsp dried oregano or chopped rosemary leaves

1tsp salt

8oz (220g) plain flour

6oz (165g) roughly chopped, pitted

green olives

4fl oz (110ml) extra virgin olive oil

Preparation: Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F/Gas Mark 4. Sift the flour with the salt. Beat the eggs and milk with a whisk until frothy. Add the herbs and gradually mix into the flour, beat thoroughly to a runny paste and mix in the chopped olives and the olive oil. Spoon mixture into a shallow, oiled baking tin - I use two 7in (17.5cm) square tins - and bake for 25 mins until lightly browned. Cut into squares to serve.

(Photograph omitted)

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