Olives, Much More than the Perfect Snack
Olives, though ideal with a beer or a vermouth, are extremely versatile: they can be used as an ingredient in sophisticated recipes, they have their own DO, and they're a source of fiber and antioxidants. Small, but powerful!
Olives are probably the most universal snack. As popular as it is delicious, in Spain it's an essential ingredient in any self-respecting appetizer... But its potential goes far beyond the moment it’s consumed (one of the most appreciated, for certain). Interaceituna, the interprofessional table olive organization, has evidence that table olives were being consumed in the 1st century AD, beyond being used to produce oil. For 20 centuries it has been seen as a sexy snack and is always associated with moments of enjoyment.
However, to turn them into that delicious, salty, tasty snack, they must be dressed with an alkaline solution and then placed in brine so that they either ferment partially or completely. This process can also be done in reverse, preserving them first in brine and then treating them in an alkaline solution. And sometimes olives are cured directly in brine.
Manzanilla, Cacereña, Gordal…
But not all olives can be table olives. The varieties most suitable for consumption are Hojiblanca, Manzanilla, Cacereña and Gordal. Manzanilla is the most widely used and, after being fermented, it acquires a straw color and a mild flavor, which makes it one of the most popular. The Hojiblanca olive has a firm pulp and is highly appreciated in black olive preparations, as is the Cacereña, which stands out because of how simple it is to separate the pulp from the stone... The Gordal stands out for its large size and is one that elicits the most joy when placed on the table due to its fleshy pulp, so much so that it's known as “La Bella de España” (The Beauty of Spain).
Missing here, of course, is one of the most obvious distinctions when talking about the world of olives: color. Some people are surprised to learn that green and black olives are the same and that the color varies depending on the ripeness at the time of harvesting. Surprise!
Spain is world's leading olive producer. According to data from its Customs Office, exports of table olives, including shipments to European Union countries, amounted to 345,197 tons (net drained weight) in 2019, and there are true giants such as Deoleo, leading the way for companies in the table olive and pickle sector in Spain in terms of revenue. Sovena España and Borges Agricultura & Ind. Edible Oilis rank second and third, respectively.
PDO: Aloreña and Mallorca
Manzanilla and Gordal olives have had Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status since 2020, although not many people know this. Moreover, there are two Designations of Origin, which are the flagship of quality table olives: PDO Aceituna Aloreña (Málaga) and PDO Aceituna de Mallorca.
The PDO Aloreña olive was created 12 years ago to recognize a product that has unique characteristics: “It's rich in fiber, crunchy, has a firm pulp... It has natural seasonings such as thyme, garlic, pepper, oregano… It's sold in a very mild brine. What's interesting about this olive is that it doesn't need to go through a long transformation process to be consumed. It's a friendly, seductive olive, so to speak,” says Antonia Bravo, manager of Aceitunas y Encurtidos Bravo, a family-run business that produces olives within this PDO that has been operating for 45 years and exports to different countries within America and Europe.
Bravo believes that the olive is overwhelmingly versatile and can be enjoyed in recipes and preparations where the only limit is the chef's imagination. “As an appetizer, it always works, but our culture is changing. It's incredibly powerful in enhancing the flavor of dishes. It can be used sliced in salads and tartars, in both fish and meat, in sauces added to fish dishes... It's a fascinating product that can even be used dehydrated in desserts. It's great in cakes!”
If the Aloreña is an olive that's so versatile, the same cannot be said of the PDO Aceituna de Mallorca, although it's worth the challenge. This second PDO, which was created in 2013, recognizes a very special olive, the fruit of olive trees that grow in a complicated area. “We are in Valldemossa, in the Sierra de Tramuntana, and here we have olive trees located on terraced slopes with very low productivity. Harvesting has to be done by hand. All of our production is totally organic,” explains Joe Holles, manager of the Son Moragues estate, a Brit who took over the project, connecting to it after spending his childhood in the area.
The result is a fruit that is heroically harvested but still has a character that's complicated. “It's a bitter olive, which at first is a bit of a shock, but it's an essential flavor for the Majorcan palate. We make two versions: whole ones, with just brine, and cracked ones with brine, chili pepper and fennel,” says Holles.
At Son Moragues, they're proud that the Majorcan olive, although scarce and with a peculiar taste, has reached places like Selfridges department store in London. “I think that people who do not yet know the olive get curious about it because of its character as it's a fermented product, one of the few we have in the Mediterranean diet. Many users perceive it almost as a superfood and that fills us with pride. They're not wrong either: the Majorcan olive has very high levels of polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants,” Holles says. And for those people who want to keep it simple with their olives, they can always “go back to their roots,” to the simple pleasure of drinking a beer with a handful of these glorious green, round fruits, which always provide moments of happiness.
Author: Javier Sánchez / @ICEX