Preparing Table Olives

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olives in water bath
Fresh picked olives in water bath, being prepared for table olives

As I wrote the other day, we were in Exarchos to help with harvesting olives that are going to be pressed into olive oil. On Sunday, it was raining in the morning so a decision was made to cancel that day’s planned work.

So, after it stopped raining, I decided to head over to my wee olive grove to see how things were doing and to check out the adjacent piece of land I purchased, and had arranged to have ploughed and tilled. I also wanted to see how a big nearby wild rose bush was doing and grab some rosehips if it was worth it.

My olive trees are coming along nicely after the winter damage done last year. Hopefully this winter will be much milder than last year, when the temperature dropped as low as -18C in this village, just a 90 minute drive north of Athens, Greece. Of course, we weren’t expecting to find many olives; we’ve known that for awhile, but interestingly, some of the trees did have olives that were worth picking. We ended up getting about 2 kg of olives – not much from 65 trees, but Kyriaki’s mom suggested that they could be made into table olives. The ones we picked had a nice size to them – not quite as big as some of the olives that you’ll find as table olives, but nevertheless, they will be fine.

2kg of olives in a bag

I have never prepared olives that you eat, but I knew there was some process involved. So, after listening to Kyriaki translate her mom’s instructions, I think I have it figured out. Kyriaki’s mom offered to take the olives and do it herself, but I insisted I would like to do it so I am learning something, and can say I have done it!

About three years ago, I helped with harvesting the olives from the tree in front of the house in Nea Ionia, but was not involved in the process of turning them into table olives.

Olives Are Bitter When They Are Harvested

While you can eat olives picked right from the tree, they do tend to have a bitter taste (except for a variety grown on Thassos Island – which I have not tried yet). They will not harm you to eat them, but your palate might not appreciate them. At least that is what we are told.

I experimented and bit into a ripened olive that had not been prepared as a table olive to test this statement. While it was a bit bitter, it was not unpalatable to me. Although I like the taste of prepared ones better. For me, it was almost like eating a very tart fruit or berry that had not quite ripened up – maybe even like a crab apple. Some do find those tastes to be unpalatable, but I don’t mind them.

This “bitter” taste is caused by the compound oleuropein. National Geographic says,

A luscious-looking olive, ripe off the sun-warmed tree, is horrible.

The substance that renders it essentially inedible is oleuropein, a phenolic compound bitter enough to shrivel your teeth. The bitterness is a protective mechanism for olives, useful for fending off invasive microorganisms and seed-crunching mammals. In the wild, olives are dispersed by birds, who avoid the bitterness issue by swallowing them whole.

Source: National Geographic

I really can’t say I found the taste to be “horrible.” Additionally, this compound or substance is found in both olives and the leaves of the olive tree, and may have some terrific health benefits. According to a paper in the the Science Journal Oncotarget and published 2017 Mar 14, oleuropein has a “variety of reported health benefits.”

It may:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Protects the cardio system
  • Protects against neurodegenerative disorders
  • Provide antioxidant benefits
  • Act against inflammation
  • Protect against multiple diseases

(Source – Sun W, Frost B, Liu J. Oleuropein, unexpected benefits! Oncotarget. 2017 Mar 14;8(11):17409. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.15538. PMID: 28407695; PMCID: PMC5392257)

While you will find oleuropein in olive oil, or teas made from olive leaf, you will find very little of it, if any in table olives!

It is this substance that gets “washed away” in the process of preparing edible olives for the table.

Washing Away The Oleuropein

So, many find that the olives are bitter tasting, and probably thousands of years ago, when they discovered a way to make olives more palatable for those who did not like the taste of fresh, ripe olives, they had no idea they were removing the healthy compound responsible for the taste they did not like. They just knew they liked the taste of olives better afterward.

It seems that there are a few different ways depending on who you ask, how to prepare table olives – but I’m liking the table olives very much that Kyriaki’s mom has made in the past. So I’m going to follow her instructions:

  1. First, using a sharp knife, cut a slit on either side of the olives. For the approximate 2kg of olives that I had, this took me about half an hour. I was also closely inspecting the olives for signs of Dakus…. or what others might call signs of the Olive Fruit Fly disease. There were are perhaps around 20 olives that showed signs of Dakus aka Dacus oleae infestation. I would later find out that it would be okay to simply trim away, but to see that there were signs of this, will give me an idea that I will need to take some preventative measures next year.
  2. Second step is to put all the olives in a large enough container and cover with water.
  3. Change the water every day for ten days. This rinses out or washes away the oleuropein compound (and perhaps other good things too, but we want tasty olives to eat).
  4. After ten days, prepare a salt brine – according to Kyriaki’s mom, a salt brine in which an egg will float in.

    I have done a lot of vegetable brining/fermentation in the past, and we often used more exact measurements of weight of salt to add to water – but in this case, I have a good enough description to know that a brine that will float an egg is about a cup of salt to a gallon of water. Or for metric people, a cup of salt to about 4 litres of water.

  5. Allow the olives to sit in the brine for about five days.
  6. After five days, strain off the brine, but don’t rinse the olives. Put the olives in a glass far, and cover with olive oil.

So, I’m day two of the process. I’ll report back later on how well this Northern Irishman was able to produce Greek Table Olives, when the process is done!

Have you ever prepared table olives? What would you do differently? Feel free to leave a comment below:

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