Here’s some cocktail party knowledge: Olives are technically called “drupes”—fruits containing a single, large seed—and belong to the same family of stone fruits as cherries and peaches. According to Judy Ridgway, a U.K.-based olive oil expert and consultant (check out her blog at www.oliveoil.org.uk), there are dozens of varieties, from table olives to those used strictly for olive oil, and even a slew that do double duty. But, sadly, “Most people think all olives and olive oils taste like the bland ones they buy at the grocery,” she says. Let’s change that:
Found in Nice, France, on Cailletiere trees, these licorice-flavored olives are usually brine-cured and packed in oil with herbs. Combine them with tomatoes, tuna, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and vinaigrette for the summer classic, Salade Nicoise.
Also called Nocellera del Belice, these Sicilian olives are picked when young and washed in caustic soda to remove any bitterness, leaving them buttery, sweet and Incredible Hulk-green.
Traditionally a Sicilian table olive, in California—the “new world” of olive oil—Ascolano is lauded for its oil’s tropical, fruity notes. A sweet, pineapplelike flavor makes it great to use over a soft farmer’s cheese or as a topping for vanilla ice cream.
Dry-curing—a process that involves packing olives in layers of salt for a month or more—pulls the bitterness and moisture out of these small, black French olives, leaving them wrinkled, chewy and aromatic, with a salty flavor.
The Spanish first brought Mission olives, America’s own variety, to California during late 18th-century colonization; the olives have thrived there ever since. They tend to produce a soft, buttery oil.
These torpedo-shaped olives—with their crisp crunch and tart, Granny Smithlike flavor—are most at home at the bottom of a martini, but they also make an herbaceous oil that brings out the flavor of fish and early-season veggies.
These beloved Greek olives are usually soaked in red wine vinegar, which gives them a rich, smoky flavor and acidic bite. They’re a must-have in a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese.
These giants of the olive world (literally, they’re huge) are harvested in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. Their size and fantastically buttery flavor make them impressive additions to antipasto plates, especially when stuffed with cheese, peppers or garlic.
Want to become an olive oil sommelier? Italy’s Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori Olio di Oliva—the National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters—regularly hosts five-day, 36-hour courses in Imperia, Italy, guaranteed to turn you into an authority on olives. If you can’t spring for a transcontinental trip, check out the International Olive Oil School, an online olive college with expert-led courses ranging from how to appreciate and taste olives to advanced lessons in olive oil production. New courses and programs begin this summer. oliveoilschool.org
FIND THE CURE
Because they’re high in oleuropein, a compound that makes them intensely bitter, table olives need to be “cured,” or aged with brine, water, salt, lye or sunshine. The process leaches away harsh flavors and gives olives their pleasant piquancy.
GET THE GREEN LIGHT
The kaleidoscope of olive colors ranges from neon green to deep scarlet to outer-space black, but they aren’t born in these hues. The color of an olive indicates its ripeness. Olives picked at the beginning of the harvest season (September/October in the northern hemisphere) are usually bright green to yellow, and they’ll continue to darken over the following months.