Spotlight on olives
Olives and olive oil are at the heart of Italian cuisine, where meals are lovingly shared with family and friends and never rushed.
Their home is land bounded by or close to the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the picturesque, gnarled tree specimens are hundreds of years old and still productive. However, massive new groves are constantly being planted to cope with the expanding world demand for olive oil.
Olives vary in size and colour, but there are scores of cultivars that will provide you with just the type to suit your garden. Olives are not palatable straight from the tree, but have to be brined before use. They can then be bottled in brine or oil, pitted, filled or eaten salted.
Green olives are firm and tangy. They’re available stone-in or stoned and stuffed, usually with pimiento (capsicum), almond or anchovy.
They come in sizes from fingernail to cherry tomato. The biggest, sold as Spanish or queen olives, are the best size if you want to stuff them yourself with something interesting, such as tuna or preserved lemon. They’re difficult to stone by hand, so if stoned ones are called for in a recipe, buy yourself a gadget known as a cherry-stoner or olive-pitter, which punches out the stone leaving a neat hole.
Black olives have a richer and more mellow flavour than green olives and are softer in texture. They’re available plain and not usually identified by variety, except for pointed kalamatas and small, wrinkled ligurians. Black olives are also sold in many kinds of marinades, from garlic and herbs to lemon and chilli.
IN THE GARDEN
An olive tree’s chief requirement is well-drained soil with enough depth of soil for its roots to hold, even though an olive tree is predominantly a surface rooter.
Keep olive trees well mulched (straw, decaying grass clippings, leaf mulch, even rocks) during hot, dry summers to keep moisture around the roots. For a productive life, olive trees need protection from winter winds. They grow to four or five metres quickly. Most olive trees can survive frosts, occasional snowfalls and even hot, dry summers, as long as there is regular rain or watering from mid-autumn through to mid-spring. There are also varieties that do well in subtropical and warm-temperate areas. Olive trees can also be grown in large pots for a dramatic display, though they will produce only a modest crop.
Fragrant olive clusters appear in early summer after the tree’s first three to four years of growth. The berries fill out over summer. They can be harvested green, by running your hands down the fruit-laden stems, but are easier to pick when ripe and black because they naturally fall off the tree.
In olive groves, sheets are spread under the trees and the branches are shaken with a mechanical gripper that harvests the entire crop at once. For the home gardener, vigorously shaking the branches is sufficient to release the ripe olives, so they can be picked up from your dropsheet. You can also simply pick up the olives as they fall, ready for brining.
It’s best to ask at your nursery for recommended cultivars for your area, or go online for mail order suppliers. One or a few olive trees make an interesting project for the keen gardener, allowing you to continue the ancient tradition of preserving olives at home. Be aware, though, that you’ll need a whole grove to keep your kitchen in olive oil for the year!