Olives stuffed with anchovies / Rellenas de Anchoas 12oz.Spana Life Co.
Anchovy stuffed Manzanilla Olives in water.
Olives have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years, long before the canning industry, grocery stores, and martinis came into play. But a few decades ago, your average American knew only a few varieties some were green, some were black, some were pitted, and the best ones were pimento-stuffed...and that was that.
Yet olives are fantastically diverse and equally versatile, whether ground into spreads and tapenades, tossed into salads, simmered in stews and sauces, plopped into martinis, or eaten straight out of hand. Their sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent flavors are singularly complex, making them an essential tool in any home cook's arsenal.
They're also historically important: their cultivation dates back millennia, and they're written into the Mediterranean culinary canon. Olive trees are some of the oldest trees ever harvested by humans, a practice that dates back more than 8,000 years. Today, olives are grown both for their oil (but that's another article...or a book!) and their fruit.
The trees themselves thrive in warm, subtropical zones, especially in sea air and rocky soil. Native to Syria and Asia Minor, the first olives were picked from low shrubs. It was the Assyrians who discovered that flavorful, pungent oil could be pressed from this fruit, and so they sought to cultivate and harvest the shrubby trees. With time and attention, the olive tree, or Olea europaea in botanical lingo, flourished and evolved into the hearty tree we know today. Olive trees are grown not from seeds, but rather from cut roots or branches buried in the soil and allowed to root, or grafted onto other trees.
Contemporary olive production spans the Mediterranean rim and other subtropical zones, including Latin America and the United States. Most of our domestic olives come from California great wine regions and climates tend to be hospitable to olive trees, too. But olive trees grow even more slowly and require meticulous cultivation; in exchange for that intensive investment, their longevity rewards many generations. They live long, long lives some for as much as a millennium.
The harvesting process plays a key role in determining the olive's ultimate flavor and quality. To save money, some producers use sticks or machines to shake the ripe fruit from the trees, or leave the olives on the trees until they are so ripe that they fall to the ground without any help. Though cost-efficient, this process doesn't make for optimal quality: since not all olives on a tree ripen simultaneously, many of the olives collected may be under or overripe, plus the rough handling can damage the delicate fruit.
The best, most fastidious olive growers use a traditional, if time-consuming, method: they pick the olives by hand. Each olive is selected for ripeness, plucked at just the right moment. These olives bruise less, and taste sublimely rich. But hand-picking is also a financial sink-hole, so you can expect to shell out some serious cash for these guys.
Fun dinner party fact: there are no green olive trees! The color of an olive is an indication of its ripeness. Green olives ripen and become black olives. Or rather, they transform from green to light brown, to a vibrant red and purple, to the deepest, darkest black. In general, the darker the olive, the riper it was when it was plucked from the tree.
Green olives are usually picked at the start of the harvest season, in September and October in the northern hemisphere. They have a firm texture and lovely, nutty flavor. Black(er) olives are picked in November and December, sometimes as late as January, and they're softer, richer, and meatier
What about the famed canned "black-ripe" olive? Good question. These olives are picked green, then pumped up with oxygen to turn them black. Their shade then gets fixed with a black chemical compound called ferrous gluconate. Think of this bland variety as the Kraft Singles of the olive world.