Insiders guide to Spanish table olives

Spanish FincaOlive tree

Chef Clive, who teaches would-be chefs to cook on our Spanish cooking courses in Andalucíashares his experience of this year’s olive harvest in Spain.

It is not so difficult these days to find some mouth watering table olives prepared in different ways – pickled with herbs and garlic, stuffed with red pepper or anchovies….. but have you ever wondered how these are done and why they are pickled?

The olive fruits are not edible without being processed. They are unbelievable bitter. It actually goes through a time-consuming process, nothing complicated, but a lot of TLC is put into it.

Green olives are more popular to be used as table olives in Spain mainly due to the cost. When the green olives turn purple then black in winter, they are harvested for its oil which would fetch higher prices.

Here in the heart of Olive Country in Andalusia, the local farmers have now started to harvest their green olives. When we wake up in the morning, all we can hear normally is the noise of our chickens and wild birds. But when the harvest sets to kick in, the noise of a motorised olive shaker echoes in the distance…. what a way to wake up in the chilly morning.

We have various types of olive trees on our Finca land, but the most suitable variety for pickling is called Manzanilla.

They are quite round, egg shaped and they are smaller than the most common variety such as Picual, Picudo and Hojiblanco. They tend to be sweeter than the other varieties. For our own consumption, we pick only about 20 kg of green olives.

We carefully pick them by hand and put them in a bucket. Then we need to crack the olive fruits quickly, but not smashing them too much. We have inherited traditional tools of olive wood table used for cracking and a wooden hammer to do the job. Or you can use a small knife to slush the skins but it is not so authentic or effective. The reason for this is that the olive fruits contain a natural chemical, glucoside known as oleuropein, hence it is very bitter when consumed fresh, so it has to go through months of processing to make them edible.

Some people use lye to cure it, because it takes less time, some 12 hours. And is less hassle but we avoid using this method as it is not very traditional.

When all the fruits have been cracked open (but leave the stones in), we then wash them in fresh water. In a clean large bucket or jar, we put in salt brine (not too salty) and soak the olives. We must change the salt brine daily for about 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, we taste a few and if they are still bitter, we continue the curing for another week. If they are edible (at this stage, they really do not have any tastes or flavours), we can now begin the fun bit.

To pickle the olive fruits, there are many recipes that you could try or like anything in the kitchen department, you can create your own. Like the wines, if using the same Manzanilla variety to be preserved in different ways, then the different styles of table olives are created.

We have tried many different ways to cure them. For example, we like the very elegant and delicate flavour of lemons, enhanced by the sweet garlic and wild thyme from our land. This is a classic recipe that the people just adore in our area. Another great pickle is olives with garlic, red pepper, chillies, paprika, crushed cumin and coriander seeds, lemon rind and oregano. It gives a lot of complex Moorish flavour.

Our neighbours use a little vinegar in the final pickling process. Some use olive oil instead vinegar or salt brine.

So, there is no rule, just try out the different combinations of herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and liquid to find a great or not so great surprise in 1-3 months time when they are ready to eat. Once they are cured and pickled with different ingredients and flavours, they will keep in jars for months in a cool dark place. Once opened, keep it refrigerated but before serving it is advisable to leave them at a room temperature.

Table olives do not stop there. They can be enjoyed as table olives with bread or breadstick any time of the day. But also they will add a great complexity to the flavours and aromas to cooking whether it is sauce, stew or salad etc. They compliment so well with fish, meat or vegetable dishes.

Or there are other ways to preserve olives. We have made olive pate with some anchovies and herbs, and olive marmalade to eat with strong cheese. When we offered them to the local people, they were very very surprised. They have never seen anybody like us to create something so different and imaginative. We were the talk of the village for months and people even asked us how we made them. So Clive the chef said, ” if you give me your family recipe of your wonderful Chorizo sausage, I will give you my recipes. ” and to this day we are waiting for the recipe……

To join in with the olive harvest or to learn to cook with Chef Clive and hear more tales of Spanish cooking and the olive harvest, take a look at our Spanish cooking holidays now.