Photo by Maria Robledo

Although I have happily consumed thousands of olives in my travels, it was a homely, putty-colored olive that I came across on the Northern Aegean island of Chios that catalyzed my real education into the world of olives. While touring the island one fall, I bought some home-cured olives in a tiny mountain village. I shared my hopeful treasure with an acquaintance who, I was soon to discover, was an importer of olives and true aficionado.

The olives we tasted were unexpectedly delicious with a deeply complex flavor: They inspired him to deliver a mind-expanding discourse on olives, similar to the passionate spiels I have heard from wine writers I know: of varietals, terroir, and the vagaries of fermentation, as well as evocative descriptors of flavor: minerally, mushroomy, winey, grassy, prunelike. Back in New York, this olive master led me through a tasting of over 40 varieties of olives.

As with wine, the quickest way to learn about olives is to do a comparative tasting to discover the differences.

In the course of three hours, he taught me how to tell a good olive from a bad one, and what to look for in my local markets. My favorites included Lucques from the South of France: crisp, fresh, exceptionally buttery; oil-cured Thassos from Greece: mellow, sweet, prune-like, more like a dried fruit than an olive; Arbequina from Spain: tiny, crisp, with a resonant flavor of apples and almonds.

With all this complex flavor and texture, olives became an inspiration in my kitchen. Crushed and warmed, they turn into quick hors d'oeuvre or embellishment for pasta and pizzas, white beans, even mashed potatoes. I roll boned legs of lamb and pork roasts with crushed olive pastes to season the meat from the inside. I use them often to add a counterpoint of flavor and texture in recipes, from salads and sauces to seafood dishes and stews of meats, poultry, or vegetables. A great all-purpose olive for cooking is the Kalamata from Sparta. Pleasingly briney, with subtle wine and mushroom overtones, it is often available pitted.

Pitting olives for cooking is easy. Just place them on the work surface and tap them with a heavy can or meat pointer, or the side of a chef's knife; they break open to make the pit easy to remove. (One pound olives yields two cups when pitted.)

Olive Basics

All olives start green; as they mature their color changes to beige to pink to purplish brown and their texture becomes softer as the oil content increases. Olives are too bitter to eat until they are cured, with brine, salt, or sometimes lye. It is the curing that can make an olive great or mediocre. As with wine, the quickest way to learn about olives is to do a comparative tasting to discover the differences. The best olives are unpasteurized; they have a more complex, resonant flavor and firmer texture than pasteurized olives (green olives are noticeably crisper, black olives meatier). When they are pasteurized (as with bottled olives), high temperature processing to keep them stable virtually cooks them, rendering their texture mushy, their flavors muted and one-dimensional.

When buying, look for bulk olives that are sold loose in their brine in which they can last indefinitely, or buy from a vendor with a big turnover who frequently replenishes his display. Look for plump olives that have few bruises or wrinkles (except for naturally wrinkly oil cured olives). Inferior olives are often given fancy names, pitted or assertively flavored with hot pepper, herbs or spices. If possible taste an olive you are thinking of buying, and buy for both texture and flavor. If you can only find imported olives in glass jars, drain off the brine and cover the olives with olive oil to bring out their best flavor.

Recipe: Warm Olivada
Recipe: Braised Fennel (or Fennel-Scented Celery) with Olives
Recipe: Nicoise Olives with Rosemary