Olives in Montana? Yeah, right! I have been known to satisfy my olive longing by using them as subjects of paintings but that only goes so far. Commercially cured olives can be purchased at many grocers in Montana. Olive bars don’t abound but the one at the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman is stocked with many varieties. But, what if a person wants to cure her own fresh-picked olives? No, they don’t grow on trees around here. An olive tree wouldn’t survive in Rocky Mountain Zone 4. An olive tree craves sunny, hot dry climates.
My own passion for fresh olives led me to do crazy things. I decided to cure my own. I start getting the olive itch around the end of September and into October. Olive season in California runs from green olives in the end of September to ripe olives in mid-October. I wrote to an olive grower in Napa Valley, California to ask if I could buy a box of ripe olives, straight off the tree. Low and behold, on the phone when I called to follow up, the grower said, “Sure, when do you want them?” I was gobsmacked! The box arrived. I could hardly believe my eyes. There before me were pounds of greenish to reddish purple olives, Manzanilla raw olives, to be exact. I had never laid eyes on a raw olive. Now what?
All those olives enticed me to chomp a raw one. At this point, I didn’t know enough not to pop one into my mouth. The bitterness sent me over the edge. Curing olives is the only way to get rid of the sour acidic taste to bring out the flowery flavor buried deep in an olive’s flesh. The curing process can be daunting but with the guidance of the book, The Feast of the Olive by Maggie Blyth Klein, many questions can be answered. This book covers how to cure olives as well as making your own olive oil along with recipes for cooking with olives and using olives for home remedies. The book’s glossary covers the origin of 26 different types of olives grown around the world.
For now, I will share my recipe for processing Greek style olives that I recently hand-picked in Davis, California from a friend’s tree. Three years into processing my own olives, my ritual is to make sure I am present under my friend’s tree with my gallon size lidded jar when the olives turn purple in mid-October. This time my husband climbed the ladder to pick. My job was to slice each olive with a sharp steak knife to avoid bruising. The sliced olives are then immersed in a brine of ½ cup brining salt dissolved in enough water to cover all olives. Screw the lid on the jar and store in the refrigerator or a cool, dark place in your house. Let the jar sit for 1 week then dump olives into a strainer, rinse, and repeat the new brine for 2 more weeks. At the end of three weeks, bite into an olive to test for bitterness. If the olive is not bitter the batch is ready for the next step. Patience!
Make enough marinade to cover the olives in the gallon jar used for brining.
1 ½ cups white vinegar
½ teaspoon dried oregano
3 lemon wedges
2 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
Pour the marinade over the olives and float enough olive oil to form a layer 1/4-inch thick on top. Let sit for about three days. They are ready to eat! The danger? Eating them in one sitting!
The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold beads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers — all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water. ~ Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell
Ah, olives. My love, my passion. Let it be yours.