Olives have been many things to many people: the bar snacks of the ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire’s favorite finger food, and a mainstay of the modern Mediterranean diet. They’re also a delicious, exotic antipasto well suited for the most astute of pastas or the drunkest of cocktail party platters. Their firm flesh and briny flavor pairs well with everything from red wine and oily cheeses to fatty charcuterie and roasted nuts.
What are olives?
Olives are stone fruits grown on trees, native to the subtropical regions of the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East. Native to the former Asia Minor (hello, seventh-grade history class), their historical significance in the economics of ancient Rome is well documented. Today, cultivars of olives are grown all over the world, from outside Los Angeles to the mountainous regions of Peru.
Olives aren’t fully olives until they are harvested and cured, which removes the sharp bitterness of the raw fruit (which are inedible) and transforms them into salty/briny/tender/meaty gems. Typically, olives are wet-cured in brine and often also marinated in wine and vinegar. Dry-, salt- and oil-curing methods treat the fruit in olive oil, pack them in salt, or air-dry them, respectively. It’s common for some processes to use a combination. For example, dry-cured olives are removed from the salt pack and stored in olive oil.
Lye-curing is an industrial process, and high-quality olives rarely employ it. It is more cost-effective than the other methods but ultimately strips the fruit of its natural flavor and results in a bland, mass-produced product.
The color of the olive is an indication of its ripeness when harvested. Green olives are picked early in the season, purple olives later in the ripeness cycle, and darker, black olives very late, at peak ripeness.
The uniformly black pitted “jumbo” canned olives found at the local supermarket, known as mission olives, bear little resemblance to the sample list below. Those olives, while exceedingly cheap (on average, $1.25 per 8-ounce can), lack the pungent, complex brininess and textural complexity of high-quality, brined and oil-cured olives. Mission olives are created by harvesting nondescript green olives very early, oxidizing them heavily to turn them black, then “setting” the color with a chemical called ferrous gluconate.
Do not eat these olives.
If you’re new to this whole world, the below list is a starter’s guide to some of the fancier options at the local supermarket’s olive bar. Although more expensive, the superior, less-processed quality of these olives and their seemingly endless varieties ensures you’ll have the perfect olive for any application.
Primarily grown in France near the Alps-Maritimes region near Nice, these olives are a critical ingredient for a proper Niçoise salad. Assertive and herbaceous, Niçoise are the ideal olive for tapenade or everyday snacking and pair nicely with French charcuterie.
Similar in color and texture to their relatives, Niçoise olives, kalamatas are the reigning kings of Greek olives. Grown in the Peloponnese peninsula, they are meaty and soft with a bright, briny flavor. They also have a rich, classic olive flavor great for tapenades or for use in a fresh puttanesca sauce.
These firm, oblong Southern Italian olives are very creamy, reminiscent of edamame. The large olives (with huge pits!) are picked before achieving full ripeness, resulting in a “green” flavor that is velvety and bright and pairs well with meat. Serve them to snobbish guests in need of surprises. Thanks to their size, once pitted they’re also prime for stuffing.
A classic Sicilian snack olive, Castelvetranos are bright green, round, mild in flavor and tender in texture, which makes them an approachable choice for the olive-averse (you know who you are). Mine were particularly salty — owing to that batch of brine, most likely — which made them the perfect complement to ice-cold beer and fried calamari.
French, lucque olives are a buttery delight and not overtly salty like many of the other options on this list. They make a superior olive oil when pressed, although they are a difficult olive to extract from the tree. Unsurprisingly, this makes them the most expensive olives on this list at a sensational $20 per pound.
Of all the olives listed here, these are my personal favorite. They are deeply briny and have a pronounced earthy base note that the other olives lack. It’s almost as if you can taste the Southern Rome terroir where they’re grown. I eat them on everything, but their tender flesh marries nicely with a simple tossed pasta.
If I’m not stuffing larger green olives with blue cheese, then I’m skewering these on toothpicks for a classic martini garnish. These petite, nutty and thoroughly unoffensive olives work well in nearly every application. If canned mission black olives are your usual purchase, consider upgrading to these instead before you dive into some of the more “advanced” varieties.
These extra-juicy olives are native to Peru and have delicate skins. They are plump and sweet up front and astringent on the finish — a truly unique flavor profile. Serve them alongside a robust red wine to complement the fruit-forward notes.
All of the above olives are some combination of water-cured and/or brined, and in some cases, macerated in wine. Oil-cured olives, however, are dry-cured first and then macerated in oil, meaning they don’t need to be stored in brine to remain fresh. Because they are dried first, their skins wrinkle and their sugars concentrate, resulting in a Super Olive. (Imagine the most pungent olive flavor times five.) Moroccan black olives are common among oil-cured varieties and are wonderful tossed into fragrant, spiced tagines.