Lining our verge are three big olive trees. I’ve watched the small green fruit get bigger and darker, until the branches started drooping with the weight. I often use the branches as part of a foraged table arrangement, but only recently decided to have a go at brining olives for eating. The homemade version is inherently slow, taking several weeks to become edible, but I’m told the wait is worth it.
I didn’t always love olives – as a kid I picked every speck of the little black olives off my pizza. But as an adult I love saltiness and unmistakeable flavour, on their own or as part of a dish. I hadn’t thought about how olives were prepared until a friend picked one, tasted it and exclaimed at the bitterness. After some research I realised that it takes time and work to transform the bitter fruit into the form I’m familiar with. Commercially sold olives usually cut through this process through the use of lye (caustic soda), then treated with various other additives to improve the uniform look and shelf-life.
For those who don’t want to mess around with lye, the process of removing the bitterness and preserving olives is a slow one. Opinions and methods vary by region and from person to person – estimated times seem to vary from 3 weeks to 3 months, with different levels of effort required. Hedging my bets, I’m trying out three different approaches in the hopes that at least one will work (hopefully the easiest one!).
After picking and washing the olives I sorted through each one checking for blemishes or signs of bugs, making a shallow incision on two sides. Cutting (or smashing) olives is supposed to help the bitterness seep away more easily. I chose not to remove the seeds, because who has time for that?
I then put them all into a big plastic cake container, covered with tap water and weighed down (rather ingeniously I thought) by the container insert. The olives need to be completely submerged through the entire lengthy process, so need a covering to prevent them bobbing up to the top.
Each morning I drained the container and replaced the water, for a week. At this point my olives were smelling much more familiar and the incisions slightly expanded.
I boiled a pot of brine, adding enough salt to be able to float an egg. After cooling, I decided to try out a few different curing options hoping that at least one of them will be successful.
The first jar of olives I filled with brine and topped with olive and a sprig of rosemary to keep the olives from floating. This one will sit on the shelf for at least 3 weeks (some say more like 6-8 weeks) before they will be ready. At this point I’ll be able to drain, wash and marinate them.
The second I filled two-thirds with brine, the rest with olive oil, rosemary, bay leaves and chilli flakes. This should take a few weeks on the shelf as well. Although this is the easiest option, I’m not sure the end result will be too salty or remain too bitter!
For the last jar I decided to follow Laura’s method of soaking in brine, changing weekly for anything up to 8 weeks. I have my fingers crossed that the more neglectful methods will be fruitful, but I feel pretty confident that at least this jar will turn out edible.
Now we play the waiting (and re-brining) game. I’ll report back in a few weeks once these bitter fruits have developed into salty delicious olives ready for eating.