Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

It’s not just about oil – contadini olive curing methods November 1, 2010

Filed under: Garden,olives,Recipes — contadina @ 10:04 am

Picking olives for the table is an altogether more leisurely affair than the olive harvest proper, which we will begin next week, weather permitting. Because olives contain a bitter component called oleuripen they must be processed before eating, so now I’m going to share the four curing methods favoured by local contadini.


Look good enough to eat, but patience is required

A riot of colours to show different stages of olive maturity

1. The lye method
Recipe one is generally used with large green olives. I think the ones preferred locally are called Bella di Cerignola, although, confusingly they are referred to as Corno in dialect, which is a different variety of olive altogether.

First, handpick the olives and wash and weigh the unblemished ones. For every kilo of olives use one litre of water and for every litre of water add 20g of caustic soda. You can also make your own lye from wood ash.

Add the caustic soda slowly and carefully to the water and stir until dissolved. Wear gloves and avoid contact with skin, eyes, and clothing. You should also leave the water to cool as it will get really hot after you add the caustic soda.

Carefully place your olives in the solution and make sure they are all completely submerged, by placing a wooden, ceramic, glass or plastic cover over them (a suitably sized plate should do the trick). Keep the olives submerged until they are tender (which could take anything from four to ten hours). Keep sampling until the olive flesh falls apart in your fingers. As caustic soda is a poison be sure to place the bowl away from children or animals that may want to “play” with the water.

The solution will have turned dark brown – a good sign the lye has removed the olive’s bitterness. Transfer the olives into a bowl of fresh water and change the water daily until it stops discolouring and turns clear.

Prepare enough brine solution to cover the olives (around 25g salt for every kilo of olives, or keep adding salt until you can float a fresh unbroken raw egg in the solution). Boil the brine with a couple of handfuls of myrtle and wild fennel and around 30 bay leaves.

Place the olives in sterilised jars and pour in the brine solution, top up with water to cover the olives completely and seal. Leave for a few weeks before eating so the olives can take on some of the brine solution flavour, which thanks to the herbs tastes rather Christmasy. Only keeps for a few months.

2. The brine method
This can be used for green or black olives, although they’ll cure at different rates owing to the difference in the maturity of the olives.

This is my favourite method as it allows you to decide how salty the olives are and seems relatively foolproof. They were so nice last year we ran out before the year was out – a crime when you have over 150 olive trees. I’ve just prepared some fasole (or pasole as they seem to be called in dialect) olives and I’ll probably use the same method on some leccino olives in a month’s time when they are a little more mature.

As before, pick unblemished olives and wash them. Whilst draining the olives, make up a saline solution (I think it’s 10% salt) don’t quote me on the percentage, but it’s ready when a fresh egg floats in the water. I keep adding a little salt to water, giving it a stir and then pop my egg in to see if it floats.

Pop your cleaned olives into the biggest sterilised jar/container you have and cover with the saline solution. You’ll then need to find a way of keeping the olives submerged in the liquid (if air gets to them they can spoil). For the last batch I filled some freezer bags with water and placed these on the top before screwing the lid on. Yesterday I followed a Blue Peter route and cut some flexible plastic to cover the olives, ensuring they were all fully submerged. I’ve also heard that you can pour a cm of oil on top the jar before sealing, as this will keep air from the olives.

The olives will remain under saline for a month or so, when you should taste them. They’ll probably still be fairly disgusting so strain the olives and put them under some fresh saline solution. Keep repeating this until the olives are to your liking.

When they are ready, strain and cover with water and store in the fridge. If they still taste salty change the water again and leave in the fridge for 24 hours before eating (the plain water leaches some of the salt out of the olives). Do this with every jar when you are ready to eat them. Will keep for 12 months.

3. The brine and bruise method
Bruise, prick or make slits in the skin of each olive. A three-pronged sweetcorn fork worked well for me. This bruising, pricking or cutting allows the water and salt to penetrate the fruit and draw out the bitterness whilst also preserving it.

This is my first attempt using this method, but it should accelerate the curing process so they are ready to eat within a couple of weeks, although they’ll store for a lot longer.

Dissolve half a cup of coarse salt for every ten cups of water, or for people like me who have a phobia of measurements use the egg float method. Add the olives and ensure they are submerged ( a clean plate should do it). Pour the liquid away each day and replace with fresh salt water. Repeat this washing process for about 12 days for green olives and about 10 days for black olives (black olives are just mature green olives so take less time to cure).

Bite an olive to see if they are cured, when the bitterness has nearly gone, the olives are ready for the final salting.

Dissolve one cup of salt to 10 cups of water. Place the olives in bottles and then pour the brine over them until the fruit is completely submerged. Top up the bottles with up to one centimetre of olive oil to stop air getting to the fruit and seal the lids on. Should keep for 12 months.

When you are ready to eat your olives, pour out the strong preserving solution and fill the jar with clean, cool water. Leave in the refrigerator for 24 hours and taste them. If they are still too salty for your liking, then refill the bottle with a fresh lot of water and return to the refrigerator for a further 24 hours.  At this stage you can also add flavourings, such as garlic, basil, oregano, onion, chilli, lemon juice and lemon pieces.

A selection of olives curing, including green ones we prepared earlier, which our now ready to eat

4. The frying method
Last, but not least, is a more immediate method favoured in Puglia with certain sweet varieties of olive, which only need 10 minutes in a frying pan before they are ready.

The mature black olives (possibly Ogliara Bari and Pizuttella) are fried in a little oil and salt, either with or without the following (tomato, onion and chillies) and are ready when the skin starts to pucker. If they are mature enough they should have a wonderful sweet olive flavour, if not, they’ll still taste a little bitter and you’ll need to add more tomato.

Olives prepared in this way will not keep, but they are a real treat around harvest time.

Next blog will be about a day in our slow life as I’ve been invited to take part in a blog meme on the topic by Pat at Having never been flashmobbed or twittered before, I must say I’m rather excited to be involved in a mass blog movement, albeit from the comfort of my own chair.


3 Responses to “It’s not just about oil – contadini olive curing methods”

  1. MIKE Says:

    What a very interesting post, you make me wish that we could grow olives.:) I love your first picture, what a beautiful olive bush/tree you have there.

  2. contadina Says:

    Thanks Mike. Although olive trees can survive most extremes of temperature, I’m not sure they’d cope five minutes with a North Idaho winter. Stay warm 🙂

  3. […] year I tried three different olive curing methods – lye, brine and brine and bruise, and ever keen to experiment, I’m trying four different methods this year to discover the table […]

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