Thursday, December 1, 2016

Olives for all

My first visit to Évora was also my first encounter with fresh, locally produced pickled olives. Although I would occasionally buy Kalamata olives or various stuffed ones from Turkish merchants in Germany, I was never particularly fond of the fruit, and I found most of the lye-processed olives served in restaurants or sold in shops to be inedible. So the crisp, herb accents of fresh olives of various sizes and colors served to me in a small Eborenese restaurant were a revelation.

An old olive tree in Tavira
In my second year of residence in Portugal, I moved to a small quinta in Louredo, about 7 kilometers from the walls of Évora. There were about a dozen old olive trees on the property, and I got it into my head to see if I could use the fruit in some way. Making oil was out of the question; the nearest lagar for processing was about 40 kilometers away, and the complexities of re-registering cars from other EU countries in Portugal had left me without transportation. So pickling olives was the only choice remaining I thought.

Romans enjoyed the fruits of harvest from this 2000-year old tree!
A bit of online research turned up a lot of advice on how to preserve olives at home; the best I found was from the University of California Extension in Davis. Their 26-page guide offered advice on how to handle olives of various kinds in every stage of ripeness and drew on interesting traditions from across the Mediterranean and beyond. I skipped the methods using lye, because I had enough of ruined shirts from that in my laboratory days, and I've tried quite a number of water- and brine-curing methods. My latest variation is olives preserved by packing and drying them in salt, a method favored in Greece.

Greek-style, dry salt-cured olives in progress
My first batches of olives extracted in water for a few weeks, then preserved in brine with spices, were delicious and generally well received by Portuguese friends, except for a few odd batches where I got too creative and tried out "Christmas spicing". Those were a little strange. But the process on the whole is quite simple, particularly after I ignored all the nonsense in the guide about buckets of water and weighting down the olives with plates and simply recycled one- to two-liter beverage bottles as my water extraction vessels. Change the water daily - quite simple in the kitchen sink - and then just cut the tops off of the bottles when the olives are debittered to the point you want them.

Another simplification of processing for me was a the discovery of a special tool for cutting olives. Many water-extraction methods require a few cuts to be made in the olives to facilitate the extraction of oleuropein, the bitter agent in the fruit.


But years of using keyboards and vibrating power tools have caused considerable nerve damage to my hands, so that a few minutes of cutting fruit with a knife lead to excruciating pain. But the end justified the pain I thought. Then, as I was preparing my third annual lot of olives in the kitchen, the doutora asked why I didn't just use an olive cutter, because that would be easier on my hands. A what? I asked.


Indeed. This sped up processing enormously, reduced the mess and almost eliminated the pain. And all the time I could have had one from a local drogeria for a few euros.

This year I started so many pickled olives that I had to take some liters of them along on holiday and finish them off to take home afterward.


The doutora is less fond of traditional olives than I am, and when she saw recently that I had raided a few more kilos from an abandoned orchard near my office, she wrinkled her nose and asked why I didn't make sweet olives instead. What are those? I responded. Some years ago in Greece she had bought a jar of sweet olives and rather liked them, but she had been unable to find anything like that since then, because there is no such thing in traditional Portuguese food culture.

Nor in any other culture with a description of the process in a language I can read. A few recipes using brined olives to make unusual bar treats in California, but nothing for making a sweet preserve from raw olives. So I turned to a Greek colleague, who supplied me with a Greek description off the Internet of how to make sweet olives and sweet olive jam.

I published my initial adaptation of the processon Translation Tribulations, but since then I have discovered that the days of water extraction for the olives can be skipped. Sweet olives made with fresh, black-ripe olives had only a slight trace of bitterness; looking at the chemical structure of oleuropein, it seems not unlikely that a total of forty minutes boiling time oxidizes that substance, reducing or eliminating the bitterness of the fruit.

Sweet olives on fresh sheep cheese for breakfast
Reactions to the sweet olives here in Portugal are mixed - some love the taste and the novelty, others hate the break with local tradition. But given the country's history of bringing back the treasures of the world and making them uniquely local, I suspect that there may be a future for azeitonas doces here in Portugal. In my private Portugal at least.

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