Curing Olives

green olives Growing up in an Italian family in Canada, meant doing everything food-related at home. Long before words like “casareccia” (home-made) gave it respectability, we were merely those kids with giant vegetable patches for back yards, whose hundreds of relatives were always coming over to can tomatoes, roast peppers, peel beans, boil fruit, bake biscuits, make cheese, cure salami, press grapes and yes, strangle chickens. Some of those activities have diminished over the past 30 years. Indeed, if any of my generation continue the practice of strangling chickens, they’ll only be doing so as a catharsis. That said, my family continues to produce homemade Italian specialities to this day. I hope that never stops.

One thing we never got into was curing olives. I mean, we love olives. There are stories about every member of my family almost choking on an olive repeatedly in infancy. It didn’t matter which: the waterlogged run-of-the-mill canned ones, the meaty, slightly bitter, crunchy ones a relative smuggled back from Italy in his luggage, the prune-sized black ones that were so oily I’d call the dog over to wipe my hands on....

So given that my family loved olives and was so adept at curing and preserving food, why did we never do olives? A quick poll of the family one night over dinner gave me a unanimous answer to the question: I dunno.

Everyone has their speciality in my family. Pa is wine. Mom is, everything else. I decided to make olive curing mine. I’ll admit the prospect of getting praise for doing up homemade olives entered into it, but not a lot. I gloated at the thought of presenting my olives to my three nonagenarian grandparents and telling them I made them. My grandmothers might shed nostalgic tears, but more likely point out flaws that the olives they used to cure never had. My grandfather would hand me five dollars for being a good boy, ‘cause I’m still eight to him. Tough audience my family. But I thought ah fuck it: as long as the olives all get eaten by everyone, that would mean they’re good, I could do it, and that would be my speciality.

olivesbriningI bought a 20 lb box of raw California Ascolana olives for fifty bucks, drove it home, and got on the internet to figure out how to do them.  Curing olives is all about getting rid of the fruit’s oleuropein, a phenylethanoid loaded with immune system strengthening properties and other remarkable health benefits which make a raw olive incredibly bitter and inedible to all but the biggest health freak on Earth who likes to grate them into smoothies.

There are five ways of curing olives:

Water Cured: using water and sea salt

Brine Cured: using water and sea salt and then a vinegar

Dry Salt Cured: using salt until they’re black and wrinkled

Lye-cured: using a lye mixture to quickly kill the oleuropein and leave the olive in Neutron bomb-fashion.

Lye-cured/fermented: I didn’t read this one.    

Being this was my first attempt, I’d probably blind myself and melt the laundry tub while handling lye. It’s nasty stuff, but it makes the olives ready to eat in two days. I also ruled out dry salt curing as all the recipes warning of how easily all moisture could be sucked right out leaving me with olive mummies put me off. I went with the hard to fuck up water cured method.

Water curing is easy. All you need is a ten-liter pail, cold water, and non-iodized sea salt. Lots of non-iodized sea salt. Like a really big sack of it. And someone who knows or can get you a really big sack of non-iodized sea salt cheap. Then it’s just a matter of draining the olives and replacing the water and salt daily. For several months. I’m told if you crack the olives with a hammer it takes less time, but I wanted the olives to look nice. And what’s 3-5 months of changing a 10 liter pail of salty water every day? It’s not like changing diapers.  It’s not like tending to an elderly dog on a battery of medication. It’s more like blowing up a tire with a very slow leak every day, instead of going to the bother of having the tire fixed or even replaced, like someone normal would do.

seasaltbagAfter 100 days, I started sampling more often to see if I was in the home stretch. I loved the crisp firmness when I bit into them. No mushiness. Nice. Looking good. All right.

Then on that happy day, when the olives had a trace of bitter, I put them into a lemon vinegar brine to get them a nice happy green skin color and a bit of kick. In mid-January, on the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot, a big deal for Italians from Abruzzo, about twenty people came to my folks to celebrate the feast and I put a bowl of olives on the table. They got eaten. Some said “Hey these are good.” in Italian. People asked for small Tupperware containers to take some home. My father’s first cousin Iolanda whom I call “zia” ‘cause she’s more like an aunt, followed me to the pail of olives in my father’s cantina when I went to fill up her small Tupperware container.

She asked me to hook her up with my source for cheap non-iodized sea salt and to get her two sacks. I said I didn’t have a source of cheap non-iodized sea salt. She made the sign of the cross and said she didn’t want to guess what it must have cost me to cure those olives, and not to tell her, because it might give her a heart attack, and then exclaimed “Madonna! 200 bucks for 20 lbs of olives!” guessing my spend bang on. She took her small Tupperware container of olives and said “they’re really good, but don’t make them anymore."


Toronto-based documentary film maker Roberto Verì is the director of "Barbieri", a doc about Italian barbers, and a blathering Mister-Know-It-All when it comes to Abruzzese cuisine.