Sunday, 18 May 2014

Olives - The Curing and Preserving Process - Stage 1

Back in April I was lucky enough to get my hands on about a kilo and a half of fresh olives.  It's olive season right now, and my girlfriend's dad (for convenience, let's call him the 'Jarhead in-law') was being overrun with olives.

Olive trees are very hardy and seem to be able to grow anywhere - Canberra has a very harsh climate yet the Jarhead-in-law's trees were abundant.  The actual variety of olives that we picked is still a bit of a mystery, but we think that maybe they're a variety from Liguria in Italy, or Spanish Manzanilla olives.  Their shape doesn't seem to be pointy enough to be Kalamata olives.  So if anyone out there can name the variety of an olive just by looking at it, please feel free to identify my olives! 

The whole concept of using olives for human consumption is pretty interesting.  They're not very easy to eat.  By that I mean, getting the olives to a stage where you can consume them without adverse effects is quite difficult.  Fresh olives are hard and really bitter (just don't even think about eating them straight off the tree - it's surprising how many people aren't aware of this).  Birds don't even eat olives off the trees until they're black or overripe (and then you should see what comes out the other end!).

The bitterness comes from a chemical compound called oleuropein which is found in all olives.  You need to process the olives by brining and/or pickling them in order to remove the oleuropein and, in turn, the bitterness.  Obviously, you can also make the olives into oil by cooking and pressing them.  But it's strange to think that over five thousand years ago, ancient Syrians found a way to make olives palatable and delicious - you can only imagine that it was out of necessity.  

There are actually several ways of processing olives to make them edible.   A quick internet search yields dozens of methods, all with slight variations, and without trying each method it's hard to know which is the best.  That said, all methods have one thing in common - they're all very time consuming and require a lot of patience and dedication.  The recipe I decided on was one of the ways that the Jarhead-in-law was processing his olives. This method also appears to be one of the more lengthy methods, taking around 4 months in total.

The first step of the process is fairly simple - you place the freshly harvested olives in a container (I used a 2 litre jar) and cover them with fresh water so they're fully submerged  It's important to take note of the start date so you can time the process precisely.  The picture at the start of this post was what the olives looked like on day one.

Then you need to change the water each day for the next 21 days.  Yeah, that's right... THREE WEEKS of daily water changing.  

The olives, 11 days into the first soaking
In comparing this method to other methods, I've noticed that some recipes don't call for the olives to be soaked in fresh water to begin with.  As previously mentioned, the reason for doing this is to leech out the oleuropein.  It also means the olives may start fermenting and softening slightly.

I'm still currently on this soaking stage with my olives.  They are slowly changing colour - changing from a light green to a brown.  I was worried that some bad bacteria might have got into the jar and that the olives were rotting, but they are still quite firm so I don't think this is the case.  A lot of the recipes online mention a scum that forms while the olives are submerged.  So maybe some of the darker brown colour is this scum building up on some of the olives. 

I also noticed that my olives aren't floating.  The Jarhead-in-law's olives have become more and more buoyant throughout the process, so he has to use a weight to submerge them in their containers.  But mine are sitting nicely on the bottom of my jar.  Hopefully this isn't a bad sign!

The olives, almost 20 days into the first soaking
The next stage of the process, which will begin in a couple of days time is the brining/pickling process. I'll update you all on this second stage soon and will post a complete recipe too.  I may also have a post coming up on pressing olive oil! So stay tuned for more...


  1. I like my Olivs Wilde!

  2. So exciting to watch this time lapse of your olives! Definitely gives you a greater appreciation for the olives you can so easily buy and eat with barely a thought of how much effort goes into them.

  3. Well done with your olives Vinnie! They look a bit like Frantoio olives but I'm definitely no expert :)