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The opportune olive

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Currently on parade in olive bars, the trendy olive promises to take the entire country by storm. Some of the kinds you may want to try are, clockwise from left, Alfonsos (maroon), bambinos (small and green), Kalamatas, cracked green and oil-cured olives (wrinkled).


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 5, 2001

Just when we needed a new, infinitely variable flavor booster, this ancient staple could become the next culinary fad.

If it's true that some food trends begin in California and move eastward, prepare to be bombarded by olives.

Olive bars -- think salad bar with 10 or more varieties of just one item -- are positioned in the delis of both upscale markets in the pastoral wine country and supermarkets in dusty San Joaquin Valley farming communities. Plump Greek Kalamatas are joined by nutty Gaetas from Italy, Provencals from France and big Spanish olives stuffed with garlic, jalapeno, almonds, anchovies and feta cheese, among other things.

The beauty of the bar is that shoppers buy olives by the pound, which means they get as many as they want. Or you can mix and match if the per pound price is the same. (Most places allow tasting before buying; they even provide the toothpicks.)

The olive bar trend has already spread to other cities across the United States, but in the Tampa Bay area the open-air cornucopia of olives is limited to the Greek markets of Tarpon Springs and Italian delis such as Giancola's Market in Tampa and Mazzaro Italian Market and Gioia Italian Market, both in St. Petersburg.

Locally, most supermarket chains have yet to hop on the olive cart, though they are offering more varieties of jarred olives for sale than ever.

Belly up to the olive bar
Here are a some of the varieties of olives that you might find at an olive bar, according to the Web site
Even Lindsay Olives, a producer of the mild ripe black olive that is a standard on Thanksgiving relish trays, recognizes the globalization of the American palate. Lindsay's Olivada, a chunky olive spread that can be used to dress up grilled fish and chicken, pasta and crusty French bread, is now on store shelves. The spread comes in three flavors, Greek, Sicilian and Tuscan, all a far cry from the subtlety of California black olives.

French tapenade, a paste of anchovies, capers and olives usually spread on bread or crackers, is popping up on menus in most big cities, though sometimes chefs are taking creative license and leaving out all three ingredients. Tapenade must have those three items; if not, the mixture is roasted-red pepper spread or garlic-artichoke paste. Delicious, just not true tapenade.

It may be too soon to declare olives the accompaniment of the decade. But olives, be they the pleasantly tart green Sicilian or the buttery purple-black Kalamata, can certainly take credit for making bland salads exciting or waking up moribund boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Set out a bowl of various stuffed Spanish olives for your next cocktail party and watch them disappear.

For dieters, a few tablespoons of chopped Nicoises or salty picholines sprinkled over the same old salad pack enough flavor to keep wayward eating to a minimum. You won't need many to brighten a meal, which is good because olives are high in fat, though it's the monounsaturated variety, and sodium.

If your experience with olives has been limited to a pimento-stuffed Spanish Manzanilla in a martini or a pitted colossal at the holidays, it's time to spread your wings. A little olive nomenclature and a willingness to taste, taste, taste will get you acquainted with the storied fruit that got its start in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago.

Sam Ciccarello, general manager of Vigo Importing in Tampa, says interest in olives has spiked in recent years thanks to a public looking for new tastes.

"The more you look (when food shopping), the more olives you'll see," Ciccarello says.

It makes sense that our devotion to olive oil would eventually encompass the fruit from which it comes. In the main wine grape-growing counties of California -- Sonoma, Napa, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Joaquin -- small olive groves are sprouting up to provide fruit for boutique olive oils produced by wineries. More and more, California wine-tasting excursions are including samples of olive oil, which pairs well with the romantic nature of winemaking.

"People are generally much better informed about food and more informed about different tastes and cultures," Ciccarello says. "Olives fall into a European and Mediterranean diet. Olives are healthy, easy and shelf-stable. They are a great thing to have on the shelf."

Vigo, which imports about 15 kinds of olives, supplies jarred olives to supermarket chains across the country and bulk olives to smaller, independent markets. Vigo's most popular olive, Ciccarello says, is the Kalamata, which tops the feta-laced Greek salad.

Ciccarello says Vigo is starting to market aggressively the Chilean Alphonso olive to supermarkets. It's not very well-known now, he says, but could become popular because it's a meaty, smooth-tasting olive. Many delis, such as Gioia in St. Petersburg, already offer the Alphonso.

Generally, black olives are riper and have a more mellow, complex taste. Green olives are unripe, with a fruity, tart flavor. The color of the olive reflects the ripeness of the fruit. Raw olives contain a tart liquid that makes them unedible off the tree.

Selecting olives can be daunting. Many terms are confusing, interchangeable and just plain wrong. The names of the olives don't help. Some, such as Kalamata and Sicilian, are named after the places from which they come, while other names refer to the variety of tree, such as picholine or mission, the canned, available variety grown in California. Provencal olives get their name from the traditional herb mix of the region, marjoram, lavender, rosemary, basil, savory and thyme, used to flavor the fruit.

Some olives are named by the method used to cure them: dry-cured, oil-cured or brine-cured. (The terms dry-cured and oil-cured are used interchangeably. Both mean the olives have been cured in salt, but the oil-cured olives are coated with oil to prevent spoilage by exposure to air.)

The California ripe olive was developed for the American palate from the fruit of the mission olive tree, brought to California from Mexico by Catholic missionaries, says Jan Nelson, manager of the California Olive Committee, a group that promotes the state's crop.

California's 35,000 acres of groves represent the bulk of the country's olive production, and both the black ripe olive and several varieties of green are produced from these groves. (Ripe olive is a misnomer because the olive is never really ripe. It's picked green and then softened, blackened and flavored in a canning process.)

Despite olive bars popping up all over, Nelson points to the annual sales of 15-million cases of California ripe olives as reason to believe that in the United States the mild olive is still king. However, even California growers are feeling the pinch of European competition.

"Our competition is not Kalamata and Nicoise. Our competition is a canned ripe olive (from Europe)," Nelson says. "The industry in Europe is subsidized by the European Economic Union. We've been working with the government to get a level playing field, but that's easier said than done. They (EU growers) can ship them from Spain to New York cheaper than we can from California to New York."

Olives are grown primarily around the Mediterranean, in Italy, France, Morocco, Spain and California. Chile, Australia, South Africa and China are also contributing to the world market. Olives need a long, dry, hot season to bear fruit. They are an alternate-year bearing crop, which means a bountiful year is followed by a slow season.

It's expensive to grow any kind of olive, mainly because harvesting is painstaking. Olives are usually hand-picked to prevent bruising. But that is changing, in California at least. After much testing, six mechanical harvesters will be working the olive groves in the central valleys of California this month, Nelson says.

The pitted black olive that is so popular in the United States is leeched of its bitterness in a lye bath, which also neutralizes a lot of the flavor and produces a mild-tasting olive. The green olives are then oxidized to turn them black. This process takes seven to nine days, Nelson says.

Other methods of curing take longer but preserve the natural taste of the olive. Those methods include water curing (soaking for months), brine curing (up to six months in a salt solution) or dry curing (packing in salt for several months). After curing, olives are rinsed and marinated in oil, vinegar and spices, which impart distinct flavors. Olives that have been dry cured are usually quite wrinkled because the salt has drawn out so much moisture.

It's good to know these things. That way you'll be ready when the olive invasion really hits. Until then, search out Italian or Greek markets and sample what they stock. Take a good look at the olives on your supermarket's shelves, and you're likely to find some French, Greek, Spanish, maybe even Moroccan varieties. If you don't see any imported olives, ask. Sometimes they are stocked in other parts of the store. Mail-order outlets also offer a way to purchase olives.

After all, you don't want to be the last person in the country to learn the pleasures of the ancient olive.

Beef Ragout With Black Olives

  • 2-1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup minced yellow onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped, or 1 can (16 ounces) plum (Roma) tomatoes and their juice, coarsely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
  • 2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 green sweet peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares
  • 1/3 cup salt-cured black olives, pitted or unpitted

Cut the meat into generous 2-inch pieces because they will shrink during cooking. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the meat in batches and brown well on all sides, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a plate and set aside.

Add the onion and garlic to the oil remaining in the pan, reducing the heat to medium, and saute just until barely translucent, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and stir to scrape up any bits clinging to the bottom of the pan. Return the meat and any collected juices to the pan and add the thyme, bay leaf and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the meat is tender enough to be cut with a fork, 11/2-2 hours.

Add the green peppers and continue to cook for 10 minutes, then add the olives and cook until the peppers are tender and the olives have released their flavor, about 5 minutes longer.

Spoon onto plates and serve at once. Serves 6.

Source: "Olives, Anchovies and Capers: the Secret Ingredients of the Mediterranean Table" by Georgeanne Brennan (Chronicle Books, 2001, $19.95).

Rice Salad With Olives, Capers and Red Onions

  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup medium- or short-grain white rice
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 21/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 cup brined green olives, rinsed, pitted and chopped, or salt-cured black olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup minced red onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a saucepan, combine the water and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the rice and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Let the rice cool completely.

In a bowl, combine the rice, olive oil, vinegar and cumin. Turn with a fork to season the rice and separate the grains. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, onion, basil, salt and pepper and gently turn to distribute the ingredients evenly.

Serve the salad at room temperature. Serves 4-6.

Source: "Olives, Anchovies and Capers: the Secret Ingredients of the Mediterranean Table" by Georgeanne Brennan (Chronicle Books, 2001, $19.95).


  • 1-1/2 cups (about 1/2 pound) salt-cured black olives, pitted
  • 16 anchovy fillets
  • 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed and 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
  • 1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Traditionally, this spread is made with a mortar and pestle, pounding the ingredients until they form a smooth paste. The process can also be accomplished in a blender, however. Put the olives, anchovies, capers and thyme in a blender along with the olive oil and puree until smooth.

If you are not using it immediately, put the puree in a jar, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to three months.

Source: "Olives, Anchovies and Capers: the Secret Ingredients of the Mediterranean Table" by Georgeanne Brennan (Chronicle Books, 2001, $19.95).

Kalamata Caviar

  • 8 ounces whole, pitted Kalamata olives
  • 4 ounces feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

In a food processor, blend Kalamata olives, feta cheese, pecans, garlic and olive oil. Adjust amount of olive oil as needed to attain a pestolike consistency. Spread on bread or crackers. Makes 1 cup.


Kalamata-Caper Salsa

  • 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup capers
  • 1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 6 basil leaves, chopped

Combine the tomatoes, olive oil, onion, capers, olives, lemon juice and basil in a medium bowl. Serve over seafood or chicken.

Source: Robert Mondavi.

Moroccan Chicken With Olives

  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 3-pound whole chicken, cut into 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives
  • 1 lemon, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together cilantro, paprika, cumin, salt, turmeric, ginger and garlic. Rub mixture on all sides of chicken; coat chicken with flour. Place chicken in ungreased rectangular baking dish, 13 by 9 inches. Stir together water, lemon juice and bouillon granules; pour over chicken. Add olives and lemon slices. Bake uncovered about 1 hour, spooning liquid over chicken occasionally, until juice of chicken is no longer pink when centers of thickest pieces are cut. Makes 6 servings.


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