Since I was a child, I have viewed a sea of olive trees as if they were a natural extention of my beautiful window, from my house in Tuscany. An edgeless balcony that stretches far out into the sea, the real one.
Olive trees are elegant, lush and generous, and will thrive if their roots find well-drained soil to hold on to. However, although they are so familiar to me, and I know the different variety of olives, I have only recently discovered I didn’t know about the most obvious and important fact about olives, which is that ripe freshly picked olives are uneatable due to their bitterness! I was like a young child tasting an unpleasant flavour for the first time! But, as I’m not a child anymore and after having erased from my mind the naive idea that olive trees bear ready-to-eat fruits, I went to take some proper lessons from those who know a thing or two about olive picking and their preservation.
The most common pratice with olives is to make oil at the frantoio. In the past, the frantoio with its huge stone wheels, earthenware jars, piles of the soaked felt disks used for several olive pressings, and the pungent fragrance that was always in the air, appeared almost like a place of alchemy.
It was always bustling with people and carts going in and out and it was an indication of a well-organized local economy. When someone needed to buy some oil, they went to their local frantoio to refill their empty bottle.
The organic oil was thick and had a dark green colour that we can properly define as olive green. It was something special, as special were the large stone-wheels that went around and round all the time, and special was the ladle that was used for scooping the desired amount of the thick rich oil. To be able to see all this, at least once in a life, is like having a glimpse into the past.
Today, the frantoio has changed a lot and it’s impossible to see the oil being processed because it is immediately poured and sealed, for convenience and hygiene, into tins. Business is only at the time of olives production, then afterward everything stops until the following year.
I wanted to know how to prepare the olives, I mean, to make them edible, but I have discovered that even this task requires a lot of patience.
First of all, you must get rid of the bitterness of the freshly picked olives by following the various steps required, which are the daily changing of the water using pure water at first, and salt and water later. (Read here how to do it)
The treatment for unpitted olives takes at least one month if you want to have a good result. Taste one olive, from time to time, to see when they are ready and then store them in glass jars and preserved them in oil or brine. Used them as you like, or try my suggestion here.
I have been told that in the past, people used to keep a few small sacks of olives near their fireplace or their stove, possibly for the whole winter, so that the olives would dry up slowly.
I’m sure that every elderly person in this town has a different story to tell on this matter, and, as it often happens, recipes are then passed on. Sometimes, they are written down and kept; sometimes, they are orally narrated, as if they were some old tales and, in future, we will remember them as “olive della Angela” or maybe “di Irma”, or “di Brunilde” or again, “olive di Mauro”.
It’s for this reason that I will write about a recipe kindly given to me, which can be passed from place to place, and from kitchen to kitchen.
After having done the curing, (see here for instructions) and when the bitterness has finally disappeared, we are left with the olive flesh and, at this point, comes the final part, which is also the easiest part thanks to the proper gadgets that we now have in our modern kitchens. In fact, our modern kitchens – in some ancient podere in Tuscany they are still considered a wonder – have changed a great deal compare to the old kitchens with a large fireplace.
In some houses, the stone-ovens were often placed at the top of the main stairs and were not only used for baking bread but also for drying olives. On their ancient stones, some of which we know to be from a castle dated around 1200, was placed all sort of food, the type that, nowadays, we consider to be simple and tasty, but we will never be able to really discover how tasty it was!…we can only imagine it!
- Black olives (of your choice)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Fine salt
- Organic orange peel
- Fennel seeds to guarnish
- parsley + garlic + capers
- parsley + garlic + capers + anchiovies
- parsley + garlic + orange peel
- Mix together the pitted and well-drained olives with the ingredients of your choice and the extra-virgin olive oil (a quarter of the amount used for each jar) and a good pinch of salt.
- Blend with a food processor until you have a creamy smooth paste.
- Fill the jars (previously washed and dried) with the tapenade, making sure you cover the tapenade with the rest of the olive oil.
- Optional: add some orange peel to the top of the oil if your ingredient mixture requires it, or add some fennel seeds.
- Close the lid well and keep it in the fridge. It can keep for up to15 days.