A Passion for Olives (continued)
An Olive Tasting
Olives are the perfect hors d’oeuvres, their flavors going well with wine or cocktails. They are delicious and sustaining yet stimulating to the appetite. They have a natural affinity for other simple Mediterranean foods such as fresh fennel, greens, roasted peppers, tomatoes, feta and other sheep’s milk cheese and, of course, good bread.
I often serve several kinds of olives to make an informal olive tasting — as illuminating as it is delicious and a natural catalyst for conversation. The only caveat is that the olives must be of the best quality. Here’s what to look for when buying olives, and a list of some of my favorites.
Olives are bitter unless cured, which is done traditionally with brine, salt or sometimes lye. The best of the cured olives are unpasteurized, although there are cured pasteurized olives that are quite good. (When they are pasteurized, as is the case with all tinned olives and most bottled, the high temperatures at which they are cooked to give them long shelf lives will often render their flavors muted and one–dimensional.) Green olives are noticeably crisper and black olives meatier. Exposure to air will cause olives to deteriorate quickly, so when buying, look for bulk olives that are sold in their brine, in which they can last indefinitely. Olives should be plum with few bruises or wrinkles (except for oil–cured olives, which are first cured in salt and are naturally wrinkly). The color of green olives should be bright and clear. Inferior olives are often aggressively flavored with hot pepper, herbs or spices. When possible, ask to taste the olives. Among the olives to look for:
Lucques (southern France), bright green, medium–size, crisp olives with exceptionally buttery flavor that are best served chilled
Cassees des baux (southern France), green, subtly perfumed olives with hint of green almonds and wild fennel
Organic Calamata (Sparta, Greece), purply black olives with mushroomy, minerally taste that is briny without being salty
Thassos (Greece), wrinkly, black oil–cured olives with mellow, sweet, prune–like taste that is more like that of a dried fruit than an olive
Nyons (France), black oil–cured olives with elegant, refined flavor of raisins and chocolate
Arbequina (Spain), tiny, putty–colored olives with a complex, resonant flavor of apples and almonds
Gordal (Greece), large, oblong, straw–colored olives with meaty flavor