Varieties of Olives and their Characteristics

Olives have been part of the human diet for thousands of years, long before fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes or peppers appeared. Much more so to ultra-processed foods.

Olives are incredibly diverse and equally versatile, whether ground into pastes, mixed into salads, slow-cooked in stews and sauces, dipped into martinis, or eaten directly by hand.

Their sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy flavors are uniquely complex, making them an essential tool in any home cook’s arsenal.

They are also important from a historical point of view: their cultivation dates back several millennia and is inscribed in the Mediterranean culinary canon.

Olive trees are some of the oldest trees that have been harvested by humans, a practice that dates back more than 8,000 years. Today, olives are grown as much for their oil (but that’s another article… or a book) as for their fruit.

The trees thrive in warm, subtropical areas, especially with sea air and rocky soil.

Originally from Syria and Asia Minor, the first olives were picked from low bushes. It was the Assyrians who discovered that a tasty and spicy oil could be extracted from this fruit, so they tried to cultivate and harvest the bushes.

With time and care, the olive tree, or Olea europaea in botanical parlance, flourished and evolved into the vigorous tree we know today. Olive trees are not grown from seed, but from roots or cut branches that are buried in the ground and allowed to take root, or grafted onto other trees.

Contemporary olive production extends to the edge of the Mediterranean and other subtropical areas, including Latin America and the United States.

Most of our domestic olives come from California: the great wine regions and climates are often hospitable to olive trees as well.

But olive trees grow more slowly and require meticulous cultivation; in return for that intense investment, its longevity rewards many generations. They live a long, long time, some up to a millennium.

14 Varieties of olives

Kalamata olive

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The king of Greek table olives, the beloved and popular Kalamatas are deep purple in colour, with firm, shiny skin, and a lovely almond shape.

They are often preserved in red wine vinegar, red wine, and/or olive oil for a distinctive rich, smoky, and fruity flavor. This variety is a great candidate for tapenades, but I also loved it served simply with some roasted cauliflower.

Nyon olive

These little black olives from the south of France are delicious. First dry-cured and then aged in brine, these fat, wrinkled olives are fleshy, barely bitter, and full of aromatic flavor.

They are especially tasty seasoned with Provençal olive oil and aromatic herbs such as rosemary and thyme.

Picholine olive

This torpedo-shaped variety of French Green Olives are wonderfully crisp, with a tangy, nutty, aniseed flavor.

They’re pretty and elegant enough to serve as hors d’oeuvres, and add a welcome touch to risotto or a hearty stew.

Gaeta olive

These variety of olives, are wrinkled and purple-brown, from Puglia, have a soft and tender flesh and an acid and citrus flavor. Gaetas can be dry-cured (shriveled and rubbery) or brine-cured (fat and juicy).

I like them served over spaghetti with capers and pine nuts, or simply served in a snack bowl.

Castelvetrano olive

Castelvetrano olives are the most ubiquitous aperitif olive in Italy. Bright green in color, they are often called dolce (sweet) and come from Castelvetrano, in Sicily, from the Nocerella olive variety of Belize.

They have a Gustavo green hue, a meaty and buttery meat and a mild flavor. Accompany them with pecorino cheese and a fresh white wine.

Nicoise olive

Grown on an olive variety called “Le Cailletier”, demure Niçoise olives are a crucial ingredient in classic French Riviera dishes like salade Niçoise and tapenade.

However, they are also wonderful when eaten alone. La Niçoise has an enticing herbal fragrance with slight hints of liquorice.

Cerignola olive

These gigantic green olives are picked in Cerignola, in the Italian region of Puglia, the heel of the boot.

They are crispy and fantastically buttery. Their large size makes them easy to fill, and they go especially well with garlic, cheese, capers and anchovies.

Ligurian olive

Also called the Taggiasca olive, this small variety of olive packs a big flavor for its small size. They are grown in Liguria, the northwesternmost region of Italy, just a few kilometers from the French olive-growing region of Niçoise, and the olives are really similar.

They are usually cured with an aromatic mixture of laurel, rosemary and thyme.

Gordal Olive

They are large, fat olives, with a firm, fleshy richness to match their imposing size.

Grown in Andalusia, Spain, where the robust Gordal trees thrive in the dry climate, they are highly prized olives for tapas. Serve them together with a ham and a glass of red wine.

Alphonso Olive

Although Alfonso olives are traditionally considered Chilean, the province of Tacna, in the foothills of the Sierra de La Yarada, where they originate, has been under Peruvian rule since 1929.

They are huge, deep purple olives, cured in brine and then macerated in red wine. They are flexible, juicy and meaty, with a touch of bitterness. It is a variety that is usually enjoyed with sausages and a full-bodied red wine.

Olive Mission

Common in the United States. Although it was believed that its origin was Spanish, scientists from the University of Spain in Córdoba could not relate it to the 700 varieties of olives that exist in Spain.

Mission olive trees have flourished in California since the 1700s; most of the production goes into making olive oil, but oil-cured black olives and brine-cured green table olives are mild, herbaceous, and bright in flavor.

Manzanilla Olive

This cute, oval-shaped family olive from Spain is cured in brine, with a crunchy texture and a slightly smoky, almond flavor.

They are often stuffed with bell peppers, or split and dressed with olive oil and fresh garlic. It is a perfect appetizer, especially if served with cold Fino Sherry and crusty bread.

Beldi Olive

Morocco produces hundreds of varieties of olives, but only exports a few. If you can get hold of them, you can consider yourself lucky.

They are dry-cured and have an intense and wild flavor. Serve them as the Moroccans do: in salads, tagines or drizzled with good olive oil and hot peppers.

Amfissa Olive

Hailing from the hills of Delphi, the legendary home of ancient Greek oracles, these hand-picked olives are prized for good reason.

Plucked from their branches when very ripe, they are slowly cured in brine for a smooth, fruity flavor and melt-in-the-mouth smoothness.

In Greece, Amfissa olives are often served in soups or stews; They are also excellent to accompany cheeses and cured meats.

The making of an olive

The olive is technically a «drupe», a fruit with a single large stone inside. (Yes, olives are fruits, not vegetables.)

Olives are full of the compound oleuropein, which gives them an intense bitterness.

Compared to other drupes – stone fruits such as peaches and cherries olives have surprisingly low sugar content and high oil content (12-30%), which varies depending on harvest time and variety..

But it is a cure that makes an olive an olive, imparting the characteristic saltiness, tender texture and flavor. Due to the bitterness of oleuropine (safe but deeply unpleasant), the olives must undergo a curing process before they are ready for consumption.

If you’ve accidentally bitten into a raw olive, you’ll no doubt know the unbearable bitter samor they have.

The curing of olives is more like a kind of fermentation: it is the conversion of the natural sugars in the olive into lactic acid. The strongly flavored oleuropein and phenols are released from the fruit in one of five ways.

What is the cost of an olive plantation?

According to comments in De Prado Plantaciones:

The price of an intensive olive plantation depends on many factors; from the number of hectares, the services provided and the number of olive trees to introduce. In general, the costs of implementing this type of crop are between €1,000 and €2,000 per hectare.Meadow Plantations

cured in brine

Fully ripe black or purple olives are gradually fermented in brine (ie salt water).

This takes time, up to a year. Brine-cured olives are often sweet and deep, as the brine intensifies the natural flavors of the fruit.

cured in water

Soak, rinse in plain water, and repeat, and repeat again… this method is the slowest of all, and therefore quite rare. Some growers begin their curing process in a water bath, then pass their olives into a seasoned brine.

dry cure

These olives are packed in salt for a month or more. The salt draws out the moisture and bitterness of the olives. The salt is then removed and sometimes the olives are bathed in olive oil to keep them juicy and plump.

Dry-cured olives have a very concentrated flavor and a wrinkled appearance, like that of prunes. Oil-cured olives are dry-cured olives that are macerated, or softened, in oil for several months.

lye cured

Large commercial olive producers use this method, which is very profitable and fast. This process, invented in Spain, consists of submerging the raw olives in vats with an alkaline solution of bleach.

Unfortunately, fast-acting lye is also detrimental to the flavor of the olive, leaving a chemical aftertaste and a sad, bland olive.

VagelisDimas / Pixabaypixabay
mac231 / Pixabay

Sun/air cured

In some exceptional cases, the olives can be fermented on the branch or, once picked, basking in the sun. The Thrubolea variety from Crete is an example of an olive that is left to cure on the tree.

Harvest: Picking the fruit

kekul-é / Pixabay

The harvesting process plays a fundamental role in determining the final flavor and quality of the olive.

To save money, some growers use sticks or machines to shake the ripe fruit off the trees, or leave the olives on the trees until they are so ripe that they fall to the ground unassisted.

Although profitable, this process does not guarantee optimal quality: as not all the olives on a tree ripen simultaneously, many of the olives harvested may be underripe or overripe, and rough handling can damage the delicate fruit.

The best and most demanding olive growers use a traditional method, albeit a long one: they pick the olives by hand.

Each olive is selected for its maturity, plucked at the right time. These olives bruise less and taste sublime. However, manual collection is also a financial hole, so you have to spend a lot of money to get them.

The color of olives: green and black and purple?

In general, the darker the olive, the riper it was when it was plucked from the tree. Did you know…?There are no green olive trees!

The color of an olive is an indication of its ripeness. Green olives ripen and become black olives. Or rather, they transform from green to light brown, to a vibrant red and purple, to the deepest, darkest black.

In general, the darker the olive, the riper it was when it was plucked from the tree.

Green olives are usually picked at the beginning of the harvest season, in September and October in the northern hemisphere. They have a firm texture and a pleasant nutty flavor.

Black olives are harvested in November and December, sometimes as late as January, and are softer, richer and more fleshy.

And what about the famous canned « black » olive? Good question.

These olives are picked green and pumped with oxygen to turn them black. Your shade is then set with a black chemical compound called ferrous gluconate. Think of this bland variety like the Kraft Singles of the olive world.

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