Sunday, November 22, 2009

Olives for the holidays

Fresh olives recently appeared at Caputo's, the Italian market a few miles from my house. I can't overstate my commitment to this store -- it is the only place in Chicago I have found reasonably priced and delicious prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. It also carries "hard to find" (read: available for a small fortune at Whole Foods) Italian staples like dried porcini, farro and salt-packed anchovies. Their produce, both in terms of price and selection, is second to none. You have to be choosy with it -- it is often sold on the edge of over-ripeness.

For several weeks, I have noticed ancient West Siders, who still greet each other and chat in Italian, picking over a wooden bin of these fresh olives. These are the same people who I regularly observe sniffing fennel and tossing iffy specimens aside with disgust, berating the butcher for a poorly cut piece of beef, and wheedling with the deli guy for a few extra scoops of the house-made ricotta. The olive-gathering intrigued me: how could I ignore anything meriting the interest of this group of well-aged foodies?

I walked over and began to talk to them. From kindly Korean grandmas at Chicago Food Corps to young barbacoa aficionados at Cermak, most folks are excited to have anyone ask their advice on the purchase and preparation of beloved foods. These guys were no exception, and I got a long, increasingly animated didactic on the correct way to cure fresh olives. One guy pulled me aside near the parsnips, out of earshot of the others, and confessed he had a three year-old batch still "working". If I wanted a taste, he'd bring some next week. I demurred, but bought a small sack of the olives.

Elisabeth Luard, the food writer and historian, offers a recipe for cured olives in her book The Old World Kitchen. She gives instructions to smash each olive with a hammer, which I'm sure would have delighted my toddler. I opted for the less dramatic approach: a clean slice with a paring knife down the side of each fruit. I packed the olives in brine (1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water) and left them in a jar, weighed down, to mellow for 6 weeks. At this point, I am supposed to taste them and see if they are ready. If so, I am to dress them in spices and lemon and serve them up, along with a nice glass of sherry, to transport my guests to Andalusia.

Olive season is late October to November, so six weeks of curing usually corresponds to readiness at Christmas time. My grandma always served a small dish of canned black olives as a snack before holiday dinners, so this will be my update of that tradition. Luard described these olives as "a pleasure to be savored under the silvery leaves of an ancient grove". Alas, it will be winter time, and unless tennis-shoe-and-plastic-bag-decorated power lines count as an ancient grove, I'm out of luck for finding the proper setting in which to munch these.


  1. This was a fun, colorful read..loved it! I can totally appreciate it too...being Italian!! Bravo! I felt like I just watched a super charming scene from a movie!
    PS: you are a wonderful writer..I look forward to more!

  2. Great post! Very fun reading...even if I'm an evil olive hater :)

  3. I enjoy your blog - you have a Best Blog Award listed on my site - Gloria