The first olives I cured at home were kalimata that I helped mates harvest from their small grove in Orange. I had long had a book on curing olives and cooking with them and went to it for a method. Doing the scoring and soaking and so on seemed too much effort so I chose to do them whole in salt to have them end up like those small wrinkled black drops you see in Greek delis. The method I used is the second one in this article. I was pleased with the result as were those who subsequently dined on them.
Then one very dry summer the olive tree that had stood in my front garden for a good fifteen years doing absolutely nothing fruited massively. I watched the fruit eagerly as they developed to a plump green mottled with purple, wondering what sign they would give me that they were ready for harvesting. The book I had was no help on that score.
I looked out the front room window one afternoon and there in the garden was a woman I had seen from a house up the street casually filling her raised blouse with olives. I went out and approached her and said something really obvious like “oh, you are picking my olives” to which she calmly rejoined that they were ripe and she didn’t think anyone was going to pick them so she thought she would help herself. I was taken with both the off-handedness of this, said as she continued to fill her blouse with olives, and by the good fortune of having solved the question of when I should pick them. I asked how she knew they were ready and she gave me one of those looks of resignation and pity that she should have to explain this and simply said that they were fat. Her blouse was now quite full and I asked her if she would like a bag to take the olives home in. With the same offhandedness she said yes. I returned with one into which she put her harvest, and then simply returned to picking more ignoring me standing there grinning with delight.
The tree was heavy with fruit and when she left off her street foraging there were plenty still for me to pick. Having picked them I turned to pondering how I would prepare these. I had no idea what variety they were. I was nervous about crushing them for oil. I decided to ask a Greek friend, Maria Kelly, what she knew of putting up whole green olives. The method given below is hers.
Method 1 – Good for green and for black olives
1.Make sure the olives you have are good and firm – soft olives will take up too much water and salt and get mushy over the course of the pickling process.
2. Give each olive a small gash with a sharp knife, like a small cut on your finger, say.
3. Have a tub of water handy and pop the olives into it as you gash them.
4. When all the olives are done, add enough water so all the olives sit in the water with a small layer of water over the top – don’t worry about the little buggers that float – you will deal with them in the next steps.
5. The olives now have to soak long enough for the strong acid flavour to leach out. Taste an olive and see how bitter it is. Think about an olive you have liked and what degree of bitterness or otherwise it had. You want to let your olives soak in the water until they get to that stage also.
6. You do this by leaving them in water, and changing the water fully each day, until they taste right to you. Don’t follow rules about leaving them three days or five days or whatever. Certainly, see them through at least three days of water changing. Then taste one each day before you change the water. When it tastes okay to you, go to the next stage. If the water looks like it’s getting a little fermented, don’t worry as you are going to be changing it each day. Mix the olives each day as you put them back in the water – think of them as little babies you are giving a bath too, roll them gently and perhaps coo over them as you do it.
7. When you think the olives have the right taste – maybe a tad of bitterness or very neutral depending on what you want – pour as much water into the tub as you had before. Now, here’s the fun bit. Before you put the olives back in, it’s time to brine. Get some plain salt – don’t go fancy, the fancy part can come later when you add things at the final bottling; just get a no-name iodised salt. Put a fresh egg into the tub with the water – yes, in its shell! Who remembers their science! Well, keep adding salt and stirring it in slowly – hands please, you don’t want to crack the egg – until the egg floats to the surface and shows a circle of shell about the size of a Oz five cent coin – about 2cm diameter should do it. Don’t get all in a flap if it’s a bit bigger, just try for around that size. When that happens you know your brine is ready. Don’t worry about what books say about how much salt to how much water – this method is foolproof as it was given to Maria by her mother who got it from her mother etc. etc. etc. If your egg refuses to float after you have put heaps of salt in it probably means the egg is stale, stale, stale. Toss it and the brine out and find a nice fresh egg and start again.
8. Put the olives in – take the egg out and boil it for a snack. Leave them in this brine until – yes, you guessed it – the olives taste salty enough for you. Don’t change the water until this time. Give the olives a bit of a tumble each day, like before, gently, cooing. If you find a scum developing on the top – and in all my efforts so far I have – don’t worry. You can just scoop it off, or leave it till you take the olives out and wash them prior to bottling.
9. You do have to just have a little bit of a balance between getting the olives to your level of saltiness and the olives taking on too much salt and having a cellular collapse and go too soft. But tasting and giving a gentle squeeze each day will get you there.
10. When they are ready for bottling, drain them and wash them to get excess brine off.
11. Sterilise some old bottles or preserving jars. Pop the olives in. As you do you can add whatever flavourings you like – thinly sliced garlic is always welcome, as is crushed dried oregano (don’t use fresh – it will discolour and go slimy and yucky). I often add a split red chilli – nice colour in the bottle and a nice kick to the olive. Sage and thyme go well, peppercorns too. If in doubt, buy a marinated olive that you like from your local deli and see what’s in it and do likewise.
12. Fill the jar with a good quality olive oil. Don’t fill it with brine like I did once as the olives will have that cellular collapse you don’t want.
13. Leave them in the pickling oil for at least 3 -4 weeks before eating.
14.If they don’t work out the first year – what the heck. Think how many generations of olives and olive eaters have gone ahead of you to get to the stage of just knowing that you CAN pickle and olive, let alone the arcane black arts that produce the product we all love to scoff. Keep note of what you did this time and do something different next time till you get it right for you. But remember, each year’s crop of olives will be different. Pickling them well depends on you taking the time to work with their particular qualities each year.
Method 2 – For dry salted black olives only
1. Again, start with nice firm olives, but make these ones also nice and plump.
2. Get a container that won’t react with salt – a plastic box or good cardboard box is ideal.
3. Whack a thick layer of salt on the bottom of the box.
4. Toss the olives on top – don’t slit them.
5. Cover with another thick layer of salt.
6.Leave untouched for three or four days. Then, each day, mix the olives and salt together.
7. What should happen is that the salt will get wetter and go a nice mauve colour as it drains the moisture out of the olive.
8. If the salt starts getting watery, toss it out and put some new salt in and mix it with the olives.
9. When the olives have shriveled up and are nice and salty, take them out of the salt, wash them, dry them and store them in an airtight container in a little oil just coating the olives. You can at this stage put in some finely chopped garlic, crushed oregano, and maybe some flakes.
10. You can have these as a snack or toss them in as you are making a pasta sauce so they swell up nicely. If doing the latter, DON”T salt the sauce until the olives have swelled and released their salt into the dish. Taste at that stage and see if you really want to put any more salt in.