In late autumn, if you leaned out of certain windows of the apartment where I lived in Algeria, you could see groups of men attacking a nearby grove of olive trees with sticks.
The vandalism turned out to be a method of harvesting olives dating back to at least 3000BC and still used in pockets around the Mediterranean today.
Despite such brutal treatment, the trees can fruit for many hundreds of years. Van Gogh and other painters have famously portrayed their ancient twisted forms, and writers too have captured their importance to classical world.
As Lawrence Durrell wrote in Prospero's Cell (1945): “The whole Mediterranean . . . seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste older than cold water.” Stone-in olives have by far the best flavour (though stuffed olives make a colourful nibble), and those cured in brine usually bring enough salt to whatever it is you're making. But however they come - green or black, whole or pitted, in oil or brine, in jars, tins or deli tubs - olives add punch to dips, stews, sauces, salads and pizzas.
Hundreds of varieties are grown, many suited to oil production and others destined for the table. Some are picked early and used green, others left to ripen to shiny blackness.
For a zingy-fresh nibble with drinks, put 1 cups each of black and green olives in a glass bowl. Add 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, a handful each of freshly chopped coriander and parsley, cup each of fresh lemon and orange juice, 1 Tbsp each of grated lemon and orange zest, 2-3 finely chopped cloves of garlic, and a few turns of the black-pepper mill.
Pour the lot into a heavy-duty resealable plastic bag and shake bag to blend ingredients. Refrigerate for 1-3 days, turning bag occasionally. Transfer olives and some marinade to a bowl and let stand for an hour at room temperature before serving. Green olive tapenade is scrumptious with crackers, country-style bread or toast, but also adds an olivey bite to other dishes. Toss it with just-cooked potatoes, say, mix it with breadcrumbs and spread a little on lamb chops before grilling, or push it under the skin of a chicken before roasting.
Put 2 cloves chopped garlic, juice and zest of a lemon, 2 Tbsp capers (drained and rinsed), 6 drained anchovy fillets, 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves and a pinch of chilli flakes in a food processor and pulse until well blended. Add 400g green olives, drained, pitted and chopped, and pulse to a coarse paste.
Slowly pour extra-virgin olive oil through the feed tube, pulsing as you go, until it's the texture you prefer. Taste and add black pepper if necessary.
Today's recipe could not be easier. The salsa goes especially well with grilled lamb and chicken and, served with a green salad and bread, or perhaps some small waxy potatoes, makes a delicious family meal on a spring night.
TOMATO AND OLIVE SALSA WITH LAMB CHOPS (serves 4)
500g cherry tomatoes
a red capsicum, deseeded
100g plump black olives, roughly chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
3 Tbsp olive oil
8 lamb loin or chump chops
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Method: Chop the tomatoes and capsicum into small pieces.
Combine with the olives, rosemary and oil, and season to taste.
Cover and set aside for at least 1 hour.
Heat the grill to medium-high.
Season chops all over and place under the hot grill.
Cook them for 4-6 minutes each side, or until done to your liking.
Leave to rest in a warm place for 5 minutes before serving.
- The Southland Times