April 11, 2006

Olives For the Perplexed

by peterb

A lot of Americans don't like olives. This is because the olives most of us are subjected to suck.

I probably didn't have a truly great olive until I was in my twenties. Now, they are almost a staple food in my diet. I'd like to share some of my opinions on the subject with you, and describe some types of olives that you might want to try, if you haven't yet. I'll also tell you what to avoid.

Why You Hate Olives: It's California's Fault

You hate olives because the olives you've been eating come from California. The industry moniker for these is, generally, "colossal black olives." These are the olives that come on pizza, in low-rent chef salads, and in cans on your supermarket shelf. There is probably some more specific term for them, but all you need to know is: these are the type of olives that suck. They have no redeeming features. Eating them is similar to eating a lump of black wax flavored with road tar, with the difference that the lump of wax tastes better. It's one thing to use these in a dish (or on a pizza), but if you like these black olives to eat out of hand, you are a bad person, and should feel ashamed.

I see people struggling with this. They'll be staring at the nearly-empty tray of crudites, eyeing the olives with a slight frown. "I should like them," they're thinking. "They're good for me. Maybe I'll have one. This time I'll like them." Then they eat one and their frown deepens.

I am here to spread the gospel: stop eating these things. They are bad for you. They have a bad taste. They have a bad texture. They will give you prostate cancer (even if you're female). Eating colossal black olives makes the baby Jesus cry. The next time you are faced with them just smile and say "no, thanks."

So what should you be eating, instead? There are over 800 cultivars of olive. Here are a few that I like.

Calamata olives

Medium, almond-shaped dark brown olives with a pleasant but not overwhelming meatlike, umami tang and a just slightly bitter finish. Although they taste yummy, the real win of the Calamata is in its texture. Their flesh is firm, not mushy, but isn't so firm that it's either crispy or waxy. If I wasn't sure if someone liked olives or not, this is the one I would try them on.

Sicilian green olives

Bigger than the calamatas, these taste better (saltier, bolder, less bitter at the end). The texture is firmer; you'll almost crunch through these when eating them. These are often served spiced or marinated with hot pepper flakes. If you get the spiced variant the quality will differ dramatically based on how well they are spiced. If I could only have one type of olive, this would be it.

Oil-cured olives

Small, black, wrinkled and leathery. The skin will get between your teeth, but the taste, once you've acquired it, is sublime. They're not simply salty, but smoky and concentrated, the way that a dried cherry has a stronger, more estery taste than a fresh one.

Maddalena olives

I get in the mood for these occasionally, although they're not in regular rotation. I suspect they're a sort of overgrown Gaeta. They have a disturbing vivid purple color in both skin and flesh, and are a little too vinegary. The texture ranges from loose to very loose; they'll practically drop off the stone. They're a nice change every so often.

A Word About Pitted Olives

Pre-pitted olives are a great convenience for those of us who cook with olives. Pitting olives by hand is a huge inconvenience. If you're cooking, you should absolutely use store-pitted olives without a second look back. For eating out of hand, it's more of a mixed bag. The inside of the olive will have a tendency to toughen up and dry out a bit when the stone is removed. If you're eating out of hand, stick to olives with pits in them.

Listen: I know. I am one of the prissiest eaters I know. I can't eat grapes with seeds in them. It's almost on the level of neurosis or phobia. I am traumatized when I find a pip in a navel orange. I have basically given up on watermelon as a cruel trick society is playing on me. I just hate having to eat around seeds or stones. I hates it, I hates it, I hates it forever.

But I can eat olives with stones. Because olives are special. If I can do it, so can you.

Posted by peterb at April 11, 2006 08:27 PM | Bookmark This

I had about the same experience with Kalamatas when I finally found them. Hail Stamoolis!

But, pete, why not just buy an olive stoner? I just stone my olives before I cook with 'em, and before I eat 'em. I tend to be a happily paid up member of the Alton Brown school of tools, but I make exception for my olive stoner.

Plus, it's one of those tools which, if you don't know what it is ahead of time, you'll never guess what it is.

Posted by Mike Collins at April 11, 2006 09:34 PM

Seeds never bug me. I just eat them. Pits are big enough that chewing around them is no big deal. I will bow my head in shame for liking california olives, though I prefer the smaller ones. I'd get in to other olives a lot more (I do like them, just not often) if they weren't so salty. I don't like salty. I love the kalamata olive spread I used to get at the farmer's market. mmmm...

Posted by Doug at April 11, 2006 10:50 PM

I often wonder if liking the taste of olives is a genetic thing... I've had many varieties and I've been repulsed by all of them. It might just be a sensitivity to bitterness. I can't make myself like kale or other bitter greens either.

I feel like I can't be a proper foodie without loving olives, but I just hate them.

Posted by Mark Denovich at April 11, 2006 11:29 PM

McGuinness in Castle Shannon has lemon-cured olives that are delightful. It looks like lemons are cut in half and then added to the olives for curing. The result is a vat of large, salty-tart olives with lemony undertones. Tasty. I haven't been able to find them anywhere else. (Anybody know of the original source?)

Posted by Tom Moertel at April 11, 2006 11:39 PM

As evidence of the evils of the nasty black olives, we made pizza the other night with some pitted Kalamatas from Fairway (acquired on a recent trip to NYC).
It was superb, but I put way too many on, since that's the way black olives are scattered on a pizza. You couldn't really taste the tomato sauce or the roasted red peppers. clearly this means I should make pizza with tapenade and bleu cheese.

Also, at Fairway they have big green olives stuffed with Habeneros. Best thing ever.

Posted by Shelby Davis at April 12, 2006 09:21 AM

You know, California grows green olives, too. These are tasty. Try some from the Santa Barbara Olive Company.

Posted by Julie at April 12, 2006 09:40 AM

It was on a trip to Fairway with Shelby that I first encountered one of my favorite olive snacks: an oil-cured olive stuffed inside of a small, sweet pickled pepper.

This is best if you can get the oil-cured olives that have rosemary & garlic in them, and peppadew peppers.

Posted by Laura at April 12, 2006 10:12 AM

I didn't like olives until I visited Turkey. There, in the hot climate, I finally understood what the allure was. I think you will like olives if you try them at the end of a warm summer day. And yes, black, sliced olives in a jar do not count. Make sure they are firm and watch out for the pit.

Soon you will be liking them with salty white cheese and crusty bread, and possibly some fruit. Mmmh!

Posted by sarah at April 12, 2006 02:26 PM

PennMac has my favorite olives - Black Cerignola. I love good kalamatas, too.

Posted by Moose at April 13, 2006 08:14 AM


Posted by Tim F at April 13, 2006 04:51 PM

Dude, you can't just group all Cali olives together and call them gross.

Then again, I'm eating Nicoise olives as I type this --

Posted by green LA girl at April 14, 2006 03:06 AM

I can't help it. Unfair generalizations are part of my idiom.

Posted by peterb at April 14, 2006 12:56 PM

I encourage people who are ambivalent about olives to buy some plain green Sicilian or Spanish ones and make your own tasty marinade with garlic, rosemary, thyme, fennel, orange peel, or whatever else sounds good to you. I really should do this more often myself, so the taste of DISH olives would not keep coming back to haunt me.

Posted by april at April 18, 2006 08:21 PM

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