First, some facts I learned about olives…There are hundreds of varieties of olives. Common varieties grown in this area are Queen, Manzanilla, and Hojiblanca, to name a few. Within each of these varieties, there are variations in the size of the olives as well, so for example you might have extra-large Queens, medium Queens, and so on. Olives grow well in our Mediterranean climate…long, hot summers and mild winters with some rain make for great growing conditions.
While almost all olives are still hand-picked to prevent bruising, olives that will become black olives (usually hojiblanca) can be machine harvested because if they get bruised, no one will be able to see the bruises through their black color. Black olives are harvested at the same time as green olives, during the ripening period, because they ARE green olives. It’s not the time at which they are harvested that causes them to be black, but rather an intentional darkening process by oxidation in an alkaline medium, which changes the color from green to black.
Some olives, like Kalamata (grown in the Kalamata region of Greece), are a dark purplish color but should not be confused with black olives. These dark, purplish olives have been allowed to ripen naturally on the tree for a longer period of time, and are harvested before the complete ripeness is attained, when they begin to turn color. Natural Ripe olives are harvested even later, allowing them to stay on the tree longer to darken fully or until almost complete ripeness is achieved. As a result, Turning Color and Natural Ripe olives are more susceptible to breakage, so these olives require a more delicate hand and brines that are appropriate for their fragile consistency.
When first picked, fresh green olives are hard and have a very bitter taste due to oleuropein, a natural phenolic compound. The first step in processing olives for consumption is to soak them in a lye solution, to eliminate the bitter taste; this process is also called “cocido”. Next the olives are rinsed, and placed in brine, where the fruits undergo a natural lactic fermentation. The fermentation process takes about three months. During this time, the olives develop their tart flavor and characteristic consistency.
When fermentation is complete, the green olives are sorted and size-graded, and in most cases, pitted and sometimes stuffed, before being bottled/canned in fresh brine, and pasteurized for safety. InterOliva has patented a proprietary process in which the olives are stuffed with a perfectly round ball of paste (pimento, garlic, lemon, etc.) that completely fills the cavity of the olive where the pit used to be. Because the stuffing completely fills the olive cavity, it rarely falls out, resulting in clearer brine and overall better quality in the jar. Even more amazing, they developed the technology to pit and stuff each olive in one step…it’s really quite an experience to watch! Olives from InterOliva are shipped all over the world—the U.S. is a major importer, as well as Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and Central and South America.
So, now let’s talk about how you can get your mouth around some of these olives… While the basic fermenting/brining process is similar for most olives, the olives that you would be served locally at a tapas bar are olives that have been processed for strictly that purpose…to be consumed rapidly and in great quantity. These olives don’t typically undergo thermal processing to extend their shelf life, and the quality of the brine is quite different from what you would find in a high-quality jar of olives prepared for commercial sale. This is not always true, however as a general rule you will not find very high quality olives being given away for free.
Olives from InterOliva can be purchased at many major retailers in the States including Costco and Kroger, and beginning in April when Costco opens in Sevilla, the same product they have been importing to Costco in the US will be for sale here in Spain. I was given the opportunity to taste the olives during my tour--they were so delicious, by far the best olives I have ever tried. We are fortunate to be surrounded by many olive and olive-oil producers here in southern Spain, each with their own unique methods, and their own delicious products. Having the opportunity to see one of these companies in action has inspired me to seek out local farmers and producers and try their products as well, armed with a better understanding and a new appreciation of how an olive gets from the tree to the table.