Olives have been a part of the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years. When choosing olives, much will depend on their end uses; whether they are to be enjoyed with a glass of wine before a meal, included in a salad, or added to a slow braised dish.
An evergreen tree with a silvery-green foliage, the olive is slow to mature, not blossoming until its seventh year, and reaching full maturity many years later.
Olive varieties number in the dozens and vary in size and flavour. All fresh olives are bitter, and the final flavour depends greatly on how ripe the ‘fruit’ is when picked and the processing it then receives. Under-ripe olives are always green, but ripe olives may be either green or black.
Spanish olives are picked young and fermented in brine for 6-12 months. When bottled they are packed in a weak brine and presented in a variety of ways, including stuffed with chillies, peppers, almonds or onions. Riper olives contain more oil and are a deeper green colour.
Tree-ripened olives are picked when they are dark brown or back. The majority are used for oil, but some are brined or salt-cured and packed in olive oil or a vinegar solution.
Dry cured olives have been packed in salt, which removes most of their moisture and creates a dry, wrinkled fruit. These olives are sometimes rubbed with olive oil or packed with herbs.
Pre-packed olives can be stored unopened for up to two years. Once opened, they should be refrigerated in their own liquid in a non-metal container.
In Australia, olive growing dates back to the early 1800s, but it is in the last decade or two that plantings have increased dramatically. There are now an estimated 7.5 million trees planted throughout the continent, most fruit being processed to produce oil.
Olives are considered a healthy snack and are a traditional addition to antipasto. They may be served with pre-dinner drinks (or even in them, in the case of a classic Martini) to simulate the appetite and prepare the taste buds for the meal ahead.
They are a staple of the Mediterranean diet and are included in hundreds of traditional recipes from that region and beyond, including tapanede, pissaladiere and salad Nicoise. They are particularly good added to slow-cooked and braised dishes featuring poultry and game.