Barouni olives, a variety originally from North Africa that is now also grown in California, made their way to my kitchen this week courtesy of Chaffin Family Orchards. For quite some time, I’d wanted to try my hand at curing my own olives at home, but, as you can imagine there’s not an olive tree in sight here in the heart of the Rockies. Fortunately, olives are available online at very affordable prices (see sources).
The first time I enjoyed a home-cured olive was during college when I took a summer off to do volunteer work in Morocco. The olives, seasoned with chilies, lemon and garlic, exploded with flavor and freshness. From that moment on, I wanted recreate that perfect olive: beautifully sour, faintly bitter, pleasantly salted and heavily spiced. Served as a side to lemon-roasted chicken, bread, a tomato and onion salad that sparkled with olive oil and parsley as well as the ubiquitous pommes frites that made it to every meal. Incidentally, that’s also the first time I was introduced to and subsequently fell in love with preserved lemons which now appear frequently on our dinner table.
We opened our box of olives together and my four-year old could barely contain his excitement, and, before I could warn him, he quickly snatched and olive and bit in. His face crumpled as he spat out the olive in disappointment. Fresh olives, due to a naturally occurring alkaloid, are remarkably bitter in their raw and uncured state. The curing process largely neutralizes this alkaloid and removes the olive’s innate bitterness, and also allows it to absorb the flavors of herbs, spices and other savory seasonings.
Olives are a remarkable food. Not only do they provide us with traditional olive oil with its beautiful depth of flavor, but they’re packed with nutrients. Olives are a good source of vitamin E, a nutrient that is difficult to come by in sufficient quantities without supplementation. Olives are a powerful source of antioxidants some of which contribute to their innate bitterness. They also provide a fair amount of iron and copper and represent an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acid – the same wholesome fat found in avocados and pasture-raised pork.
Settling on a curing method for my olives was more challenging than I originally expected. Recipes are handed down from generation to generation on dog-eared index cards, and very few are shared online though this handout on olive curing from the University of California provide a lot of much needed guidance for my novice wiles. Many olives or lye-cured. Lye removes the olive’s natural business quickly and with relative thoroughness. Olives may also be fermented and brined, water cured and seasoned or cured in oil. Different methods are suitable to different varieties and different shades of ripeness. With my green to straw-colored barouni olives, I plan to crack and water cure these olives. Water curing leaves much of the oleuropein intact and while that lends a more bitter flavor to the olive than other method, some researchers believe that oleuropein may play a role in the fight against cancer. Besides, bitterness is a much neglected flavor in American cooking.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be curing these beautiful, fresh olives. And, should my cracked olives with Moroccan spices yield results worthy of sharing, I’ll post my recipe. In the meantime, consider picking up some fresh olives (see sources) and trying some of the tried and true olive curing recipes from the University of California.