Thursday, December 10, 2009


A few weeks ago I wrote about the big, fat Spanish olives that I pick from my trees, put to soak until they are sweet, then cure in garlic-seasoned brine. I said I’d report back on the success of the various batches. So, here are the season’s tasting notes, plus, I am re-posting the original article, as it had code embedded in the text.

I made three jugs of olives, all of the large Manzanilla variety. The olives in the first were rayadas, incised with a blade, then soaked in water for about three weeks. I prepared a brine according to my own directions below—7 tablespoons salt for every 4 cups of water. The olives turned out nice and crisp—but they’re quite salty. Now I’m diluting the brine and placing the olives in smaller jars.

The second batch I prepared in the traditional manner—smacking them with a stone to split open the flesh. I used less salt, only 5 tablespoons for every 4 cups of water. These olives are soft, a little mushy. I think the cracking technique is better suited to a firmer variety of olives.

For the third jug, I used a tool to pit the olives. Picked green, they are firm enough to stand up to pitting. They needed less than two weeks in water to sweeten and they have a great texture. Plus, now I can stuff them with strips of piquillo pepper, anchovies, pickled garlic.

 (originally posted November 7)

I like to tell my guests that the olives they are nibbling come from the tree they’re sitting under. But, no, don’t reach up and pluck one! Straight from the tree, they are impossibly bitter and astringent. Olives need a curing process to make them edible.

That’s what I’m doing this week, picking, sorting, cracking and soaking olives that will become table olives, eating olives. They are picked green—soon after the first fall rains soak the parched earth and plump up the olives.

Most of my olive trees are varieties usually pressed for oil. But I have several Manzanilla trees that produce big fat, fleshy olives, the same kind you usually find in jars at the supermarket. But the home-cured ones are very different from commercial olives. Commercial olives are soaked in an alkaline solution (lye) to remove the bitterness. The home-cured ones require nothing more than water and salt, plus seasoning.

I prepare my olives in the Andalusian style that I learned from local country people many years ago.

First, the olives must be cracked with a stone or small hammer to split them open. This allows the soaking liquid to quickly penetrate to the pit. Uncracked olives require months to sweeten; split ones take about three weeks. I wear old clothes because smacking olives splatters oil everywhere. I’ve also tried the method from Extremadura, where olives are rayado, incised with a sharp blade. (I resisted buying a rough wooden tool that had both a clapper for splitting open the olives and a hole with blades for slitting them.) As an experiment this year, I used a little gizmo, like a hole-punch, to remove the pits from some of the olives. (I’ll report back on whether this was successful or not.) 

I place the olives in small earthenware jugs, orsas.  I cover them with water. Just water at this stage. I use non-chlorinated well water. It’s extremely hard water (high in calcium, demonstrated by limescale on my kettle), which I think may help keep the olives crisp. I drain off the water and refresh it every two or three days until, when tasted, the olives are no longer bitter. Defining bitter is definitely subjective. I bought some cured olives at the market a few days ago that I would say were still really bitter. It’s a matter of taste. I let mine soak, changing the water every few days, until they are really sweet. That takes about three weeks. 

The olives are then immersed in brine, where they continue to cure, as well as take on flavor. Years ago, I learned that the brine should be strong enough to float an egg. Believe me, that can vary depending on the freshness of the egg! Optimal measures: measure the water required to cover the olives. Use 7 tablespoons of kosher salt or any non-iodized salt for every 4 cups of water. (Or less—see tasting notes above.)

Now comes the flavoring. In my village, traditional flavoring for olives  includes quartered lemons, unpeeled cloves of garlic, sprigs of thyme and flowering bracts of fennel. Elsewhere in Spain, I have sampled olives flavored with strips of red pepper, chile, oregano, vinegar.

Although the olives are ready to eat in a few days, flavor develops as  fermentation continues. After about a month, I pack the olives into clean jars and refrigerate them. Without conservatives, they last for many months.

That is, they last if I haven’t given them all away by Christmas.  Friends say they are the best olives they have ever tasted.

You can buy home-cure style olives from open stock at many markets in Spain. They are dipped into plastic bags along with some of the brine. Olives travel well—drain off the brine, then put them in a fresh brine when you get them back home.

You can add flavor to bottled, store-bought olives. Buy unpitted Seville olives (big Manzanillas). Drain them and rinse well. Marinate them for two days with slivered garlic, salt, sprigs of fresh or dried thyme, a sliced lemon and a little extra virgin olive oil.

In Spain, olives are enjoyed as a tapa and alongside meals. They top typical salads, from mixed greens to exotic orange, onion and salt cod. They are used rarely in cooking, although duck with olives is a Seville classic. Olivada is an olive pâté, sensational spread on toasts.

Green Olive Spread

This is best made with home-cured brined olives (squeeze them to remove the pits), but pitted olives from a jar can be substituted. Serve this olive purée as a dip, sandwich spread or sauce to accompany roast lamb, grilled fish or boiled potatoes. The spread keeps, refrigerated, for a week.

Makes 1 cup spread.

1 ½ cups drained and pitted green olives
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until smoothly puréed. Serve cold or room temperature.


  1. Anne Kelly-GlasoeMarch 25, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    I was searching for your original blog and found this one. I remember curing olives from our trees when we lived out past you in the campo. It is such a simple process! Thanks for the memories.

  2. How long must the olives soak in the brine after the stint in the water ? Should the flavouring be added right from the start or sit in the salt solution for a while first? I have a case of olives to experiment with and am hoping to try this method.

    1. Allegra: Yes, add the garlic and herbs to the brine. How long? You can begin eating them immediately, but they improve after a two-week fermentation period. After a good rain during the week, I'm picking manzanilla olives today for brine-curing. Good luck with yours!