In Israel — where olives have grown for more than 19,000 years — children are raised on them. In the UK, a child who will go within a 100 yards of an olive is a rarity. But this might just be down to how most olives are sold in the UK. In Israel they are generally bought fresh and customised to your own taste.
Even if you pick them up “fresh” from the deli counter here, they are generally sold in marinades packed with additives.
But is this really what customers prefer, as the retailers claim, or are the vinegar and additives there simply to prolong shelf-life of a product already cured in salt? Unpasteurised, simply cured olives are a very different commodity and may change your view. One reason for the domination of the processed product might be the fact that Morocco is now the biggest producer of olives, followed by Greece and Spain. While quantity does not necessarily imply poor quality, the cheapest olives are generally the ones that get picked for processing, which can involve dyeing and pasteurising them or dousing them in acidifiers.
“The French never replanted their olive groves after many were destroyed in the ’50s,” says Charlie Hodges of Fresh Olive, suppliers of olives and olive oil. Which explains why today’s niçois-style olive, once grown by a dozen or so farmers around Nice, is actually a coquillo, grown in Spain — the French have stopped growing their own version. Even the Italians now import a vast quantity of olives from Greece.
But there are really decent olives out there. Although French varieties and some beautiful ones from Italy are also imported into the UK, they come at a premium, and can be hard to find. One place to go to find the unpasteurised product is the Fresh Olive Co. in Borough Market, in London — the only place this leading importer and supplier of fine natural olives sells direct to the public.
For the next few weeks Selfridges will be stocking gaeta olives (which taste oddly like blackcurrant) in its London food hall, along with beautiful, bitter taggiasca from Liguria and the delightful noccellaria della belice from Sicily — large, green, lightly-cured olives which look as if they have been given a watercolour wash of blue.
Different olives suit different occasions and recipes. A good variety to eat raw is the Greek kalamata olive — the flavourful staple of every Greek salad. Kalamata is one you may find in a fairly unprocessed state at the supermarket deli.
Moroccan beldi olives are sufficiently robust in texture and flavour to withstand the long slow cook of a tagine and work well wih chicken and preserved lemon.
If you are making the sweeter, lamb and prune tagine, try Moroccan black, wrinkly dry-cured olives, with their intense liquorice flavour. These are also perfect for home-made tapenade, which is, as Hodges says how the French use them, almost exclusively. “Why turn the super-expensive and rare homegrown product into paste?” he says. Being wrinkly, this olive is the easiest to identify by appearance, but it is worth asking anyone displaying it whether it is the natural version with no additives.
Another good olive for making tapenade is the tiny coquillo — although you may not fancy the faff of pitting them. Coquillo olives are also perfect for a salade niçoise or in a daube of beef — a quintessentially southern French stew in which the olives, with red wine and a twist of orange peel, provide the defining flavours.
If marinated olives are all you can find, there are some that do retain a bit of the sunshine about them. The noccellara, packaged under the Bodega brand and sold by Sainsbury’s, and the cerignola bottled by Parioli for Tesco, are worth seeking out. The first is pasteurised and the second marinated, but at least the olives started life as two of Italy’s finest.
Also look for jars of dry salt-cured olives whose label specifies nothing more than olives, salt and oil.