Olives For the PerplexedApr 11, 2006 · peterb · 4 minute read
Food and Drink
A lot of Americans don’t like olives. This is because the olives most of us are subjected to suck.
I probably didn’t have a truly great olive until I was in my twenties. Now, they are almost a staple food in my diet. I’d like to share some of my opinions on the subject with you, and describe some types of olives that you might want to try, if you haven’t yet. I’ll also tell you what to avoid.
Why You Hate Olives: It’s California’s Fault
You hate olives because the olives you’ve been eating come from California. The industry moniker for these is, generally, “colossal black olives.” These are the olives that come on pizza, in low-rent chef salads, and in cans on your supermarket shelf. There is probably some more specific term for them, but all you need to know is: these are the type of olives that suck. They have no redeeming features. Eating them is similar to eating a lump of black wax flavored with road tar, with the difference that the lump of wax tastes better. It’s one thing to use these in a dish (or on a pizza), but if you like these black olives to eat out of hand, you are a bad person, and should feel ashamed.
I see people struggling with this. They’ll be staring at the nearly-empty tray of crudites, eyeing the olives with a slight frown. “I should like them,” they’re thinking. “They’re good for me. Maybe I’ll have one. This time I’ll like them.” Then they eat one and their frown deepens.
I am here to spread the gospel: stop eating these things. They are bad for you. They have a bad taste. They have a bad texture. They will give you prostate cancer (even if you’re female). Eating colossal black olives makes the baby Jesus cry. The next time you are faced with them just smile and say “no, thanks.”
So what should you be eating, instead? There are over 800 cultivars of olive. Here are a few that I like.
Medium, almond-shaped dark brown olives with a pleasant but not overwhelming meatlike, umami tang and a just slightly bitter finish. Although they taste yummy, the real win of the Calamata is in its texture. Their flesh is firm, not mushy, but isn’t so firm that it’s either crispy or waxy. If I wasn’t sure if someone liked olives or not, this is the one I would try them on.
Sicilian green olives
Bigger than the calamatas, these taste better (saltier, bolder, less bitter at the end). The texture is firmer; you’ll almost crunch through these when eating them. These are often served spiced or marinated with hot pepper flakes. If you get the spiced variant the quality will differ dramatically based on how well they are spiced. If I could only have one type of olive, this would be it.
Small, black, wrinkled and leathery. The skin will get between your teeth, but the taste, once you’ve acquired it, is sublime. They’re not simply salty, but smoky and concentrated, the way that a dried cherry has a stronger, more estery taste than a fresh one.
I get in the mood for these occasionally, although they’re not in regular rotation. I suspect they’re a sort of overgrown Gaeta. They have a disturbing vivid purple color in both skin and flesh, and are a little too vinegary. The texture ranges from loose to very loose; they’ll practically drop off the stone. They’re a nice change every so often.
A Word About Pitted Olives
Pre-pitted olives are a great convenience for those of us who cook with olives. Pitting olives by hand is a huge inconvenience. If you’re cooking, you should absolutely use store-pitted olives without a second look back. For eating out of hand, it’s more of a mixed bag. The inside of the olive will have a tendency to toughen up and dry out a bit when the stone is removed. If you’re eating out of hand, stick to olives with pits in them.
Listen: I know. I am one of the prissiest eaters I know. I can’t eat grapes with seeds in them. It’s almost on the level of neurosis or phobia. I am traumatized when I find a pip in a navel orange. I have basically given up on watermelon as a cruel trick society is playing on me. I just hate having to eat around seeds or stones. I hates it, I hates it, I hates it forever.
But I can eat olives with stones. Because olives are special. If I can do it, so can you.