Travel anywhere in the Mediterranean and you will encounter the olive. From vast groves of squat, silvery-leaved trees to thick tapenade paste and bowls of glistening fruit in local markets, olives are as much a part of the Mediterranean experience as sunshine and sangria.
The European olive – Olea europaea – has a history that stretches back in time with the first trees thought to have been cultivated around 7,000 years ago. There’s evidence of edible olives in the Bronze Age and in ancient Egyptian tombs.
Olives have also long been thought of as sacred, mentioned in both Christianity and Islam while the olive branch is a symbol of peace.
The trees can live for hundreds of years and groves of gnarled specimens are seen throughout the Mediterranean.
Today, olive oil in cooking is commonplace and it’s possible to buy a wide range of the fruit from the dark, fruity Greek Kalamata to the crisp French Picholine with its slight salty flavour and the oval Manzanilla from Spain.
Olives have also spread to other parts of the world with trees cultivated in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Australia and California.
What better is there to eat with a glass of prosecco or a Bellini than a bowl of sharp green olives while nothing beats a succulent black fruit topping fresh fish or tossed into a crunchy salad. Olives are the classic garnish for a martini and the essential ingredient in a Salade Nicoise.
Olives are harvested when fully grown but unripe as green fruit, semi-ripe when the olives are shades of red and brown or as black, fully ripened fruit. The harvest starts in late August and continues until November, depending on the region, variety of olive and whether they are being picked as unripe or ripe fruit.
After picking, olives are cured to remove their naturally bitter flavour with common methods including the use of brine, water and oil.
Once opened, store jars of olives in the fridge, keeping them in their liquid. They should keep well for around 10 days.
And to conjure up memories of sunny days spent relaxing in the Mediterranean, try one of our favourite recipes.
Black Olive Tapenade
250g black olives with stones removed
2 tbsp capers
3 anchovy fillets
the juice of one lemon
Blitz all the ingredients in a food processor, adding enough olive oil to create a spreadable paste. Serve on crisp slices of toasted baguette or as a dip with crudités.
4 tuna steaks
Crispy green lettuce – Little Gem is good
4 hardboiled eggs, peeled and quartered
8 anchovy fillets, chopped into pieces
20 black olives
half a cucumber, sliced
a handful of green beans, topped and tailed and blanched until just cooked
8 new potatoes, cooked and cut into quarters
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
half a red onion, finely sliced
a few basil leaves.
6 tbsp good olive oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
salt and pepper.
Cook the tuna in a griddle pan for between two and three minutes on each side, or longer if you prefer it well done.
Put the lettuce, cucumber, onion, tomatoes, beans, potatoes and anchovies in a bowl. Place the tuna on top and add the eggs, olives and basil. Mix the dressing ingredients together and drizzle over the salad.