I’m a big fan of olives, but it hasn’t always been that way.
The first olive I ever had was a black olive. I must have been about six years old, and the olive topped a salad on an airplane to Asia, and I mistook it for a grape. As I popped it in my mouth, instead of the expected sweet flavour, my mouth was filled with a savoury, briny taste that was bad enough to put me off olives for the next decade-and-a-half.
But preferences change, and as I got more and more familiar with mediterranean food, I came to quite like them exactly because of that savoury, briny goodness they have to offer.
And then, one day around late September, I happened to be in Spain on holiday. Wikipedia claimed that olives should be just about in season at that time of year. And sure enough, I came across a fruiting olive tree on holiday, in the picturesque town of Portlligat. I knew olives received some sort of treatment before they are suitable for eating, but wanted to learn more about this treatment and wondered just how bad it could be. So I did what anyone would do in my situation – I picked one and chewed down on it.
It reminded me of tea, infused for a few weeks. A meal of the strongest, most bitter grape seeds (yes, the seeds only!) you’ve ever had. Then of the time I sucked on the back of my ball point pen for too long, and got the sharp-tasting, gooey ink in my mouth, and couldn’t for the life of me wash away the horrid taste. It reminded me of the taste of leaky batteries. And the olives were worse than that.
So I tried another olive that had a bit more colour. As you do. It tasted at least as bad as the first one.
Clearly, I needed to learn more about prepping olives. So I foraged a few more olives around the area while we were waiting to get into the tourist attraction.
After the formal tour, and after making sure I wasn’t breaking any rules, it seemed rude not to collect some more olives from Salvador Dalí’s own olive garden as well – they were a good bit smaller. And so I ended up with a pocket full of green and near-green, untreated olives.
Back at our temporary address, I looked up different methods of treating olives. The simplest method was to soak them in several changes of brine over the course of a few weeks. Though there wasn’t going to be enough of a holiday left to give the olives enough time to cure, this seemed realistic enough otherwise and at least worth a try. To speed up the process, I made an incision in every olive and soaked the raw, untreated olives in salt water with some dried parsley (which was strangely enough the only kind I could find).
In hindsight, the parsley had little effect on the taste as I replaced the brine each morning. On the third morning, I braved up and tried a small olive. It was very, very bitter – but didn’t taste sharp. I kept changing the brine daily, sometimes twice a day, and added a small clove of garlic and a crushed, foraged bay leaf on the last few days and served the bowl of prepared olives alongside our meal on the last day.
For some reason, no one in our group volunteered to have a taste. I tasted one and tried to convince myself, “They’re really not that bad anymore”. The bravest of our group members picked up an olive and said, “I’ll try”, ate one and proclaimed, with a contorted face, “Best olive I’ve ever had!”.
Store-bought green olives take on a bleaker, yellowish hue when compared to olives that have only been brined for a few days – a bit like how a cucumber kept in the fridge too long loses some of its green colour over time. Store-bought olives are also a lot milder. Sure enough, they are kept in a brine until you buy them – and this much longer cure might have made good bit of difference.
Garlic and bay leaf definitely work as an olive seasoning, and I would happily choose this combination again.
It would have been interesting to try curing the olives with an alkaline – chemically, bitter/acrid tastes are often acids. Repeated changes of water or brine can draw out such flavours, but alkalines such as lye, soda crystals or bicarbonate of soda can chemically neutralize them and might allow for a quicker cure. I didn’t have these powders at hand for a side-by-side comparison on holiday. More experimenting is in order (though I suspect it will be difficult to source raw olives here in the UK).
Bitterness is being bred out of our foods. Foods used to be more bitter. We should embrace bitterness. It does add depth of flavour. A savoury note. Complexity. Be it in chocolate, coffee, beer or salads.
Well… possibly too much, in this case.
But one thing is for sure. These olives had character. They were, perhaps, as eccentric as the artist who owned the grove.
They were truly Dalí’s olives.