What would you do when faced with a huge bin full of raw, uncured olives? Most people would crinkle their noses and move on. But when I saw these black beauties staring back at me from the Knoll Farms booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, I knew they were coming home with me.
Of course, I didn't know what to do with them right out of the gate. So I asked. The fella at the booth said he'd email me directions, but that it was basically a matter of soaking in fresh water and then brine until the alkaline toxins were leached out. No lye, no chemicals. Water.
This got me thinking. Olives, much as I love them, are one of those things that has always mystified me. How did humanity come to realize they could eat this bitter, nasty fruit by treating it? Who was the first to make this discovery? But knowing now that mere salt water can be the agent of change, it seems entirely possible that olives found floating in the briny drink of the Mediterranean might have been made edible enough to pique the curiosity and ingenuity of some ancient epicure. Could it really be as simple as that?
Monday morning I received an email with two methods for preparing the olives. The first, from Chris Cosentino of Incanto, involved a glazed earthenware crock and three months of brining. The second, from Andy Galli, produce manager at the Brentwood Raley's, was more labor-intensive, but was also faster, resulting in edible olives in about a month.
First things first: The olives go into the drink.
For the first seven days, cover the olives in fresh water, rinsing and changing the water daily. Some will float, most will not.
For the next 10 to 15 days, soak the olives in a brine of 1/2 c. salt to 12 c. water.
Change the water every five days or so -- but use your instincts. If the water gets especially scummy, change it sooner. Don't worry too much about it just being murky.
During this stage, one of the most amusing parts was that many olives were clearly at exactly the density of the saline solution, so they would slowly rise and fall, occasionally hovering in the middle, like a mouth-watering lava lamp.
However. What Andy doesn't tell you, and what I am telling you now, is that mold is the biggest scourge here. Ultimately, I took to dropping a length of cheesecloth in the mix to keep the olives submerged under water so as to avoid exposure to air.
After 10 days in the brine, start tasting. They should be mild, almost bland. Keep soaking until all bitterness is gone.
At this point you can drain the olives, and transfer them to a sealable container. Cover with good olive oil and add any flavoring agents you like -- spices, garlic, what have you. I used a couple bay leaves, some red pepper flake, a few good pinches of coarse salt and some julienned orange rind. Stir at least once a day to keep the olives well covered in oil.
The olives were delicious, with an almost nutty flavor and good, firm texture. Sadly, we only got to enjoy them a short time, as the persistent scourge of mold reared its ugly head once again. One morning I cracked open my container to find the orange rind covered in a fine white fur. I hadn't stirred the olives the day before. Damn.
Still, it was fun while it lasted, and worth it for the opportunity to taste my own handiwork -- to say nothing of demystifying this intriguing food. For one brief moment, I felt I was not just preparing a snack, but reaching back through time, reconnecting with something that recalls to the very foundation of Western food and culture. I can hardly wait for next year's harvest.
Related: Evidently lots of folks are curious about curing your own. Cookiecrumb ventured into these waters more than a year before I did. And thanks to Sarah at Slashfood, my own experiment has been picked up in a number of places, including The Food Section.