Yes, that’s right. Olives are actually classified as a fruit. I know, I was surprised just like you might be reading this. They are technically drupe fruits, stone fruits like cherries and peaches. The stones act as seeds for the Olea europaea tree.
Regardless of their classification, we love them and we bet you do, too! In fact, nearly 3 million metric tons of table olives were produced worldwide in the 2019/2020 growing season. There are a lot of olive fans around the globe.
Olives have been enjoyed for hundreds of years, used for everything from martinis to tapenade, from oil to salads. So, let’s get to know these delightful little fruits that have made a huge culinary impact over many years!
A Brief History
Olives have been around for ages. Ancient texts from classical antiquity mention olives and olive trees. These early works describe olive oil as a symbol of virtue and purity, with the tree itself as a symbol of tranquility and contentment. For many years, olive oil has been considered holy and sacred. Ancient Israelites not only used olive oil in their cuisine, but also for special ceremonies anointing religious or royal positions. Olives were extremely important to the Greeks who used them as one of their three main crops that helped fuel that civilization’s development. Olive oil was also used to light sacred lamps including the eternal flame during the Olympic games. Winners of the Olympic games were also crowned with olive leaves. Furthermore, olive oil and olive trees are mentioned in both the Bible and Quran.
Olives are thought to have been domesticated in the third century BC in ancient Greece. As for their development in the United States, it is reported that in the late 18th century, a Franciscan missionary in San Diego planted the first olive tree in California at the San Diego Mission de Alcala.
Types of Olives
There are many, many types of olives around the world. Here are just a few:
- Alfonso – larger, purple olives from Chile and Peru
- Amfissa – hand-picked olives from Greece
- Beldi – intensely flavored olive from Morocco
- Castelvetrano – a common, bright green olive from Italy
- Cerignola – a buttery flavored green olive from Puglia
- Gaeta – brownish, wrinkled olive from Puglia with a slight citrus flavor
- Gordal – a meaty, rich Spanish olive grown in Andalucía (my personal favorite)
- Kalamata – the Greek table olive typically preserved in red wine vinegar
- Liguria – small yet robust olive grown in Liguria, Italy
- Manzanilla – a oval, smokey flavored olive from Spain
- Mission – mild, black olives now grown in California
- Niçoise – herbal fragranced olive used in classic southern French dishes
- Nyon – small, black aromatic olives from the south of France
- Picholine – a nutty, tart oblong-shaped French olive
Over 800 million olive trees are currently being farmed worldwide. Olive oil accounts for the majority (almost ninety percent) of the world's olive production.
The olive tree is one of the most well-known of the evergreen trees. The average life-span of an olive tree is 500 years, but they can live to be 1500 years old. There is one olive tree in Crete, Greece that is reported to be over 4000 years old.
During their first four to eight years, olive trees can reach a height of 20-40 feet. It is at this time that the olive tree begins bearing fruit. Olive trees have small white flowers that blossom in the spring, and have an enchanting fragrance.
Olive production is concentrated in the Mediterranean region, which accounts for 93% of the total production worldwide. Currently, there are more than a thousand varieties of olives grown in different places including: Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, China, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Angola, South Africa, Uruguay, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, and California.
Olive trees produce green, brown and dark purple olives. Their color depends on when in the harvest season they are picked. For example, green and yellow fruits are harvested at the beginning of the ripening season, whereas violet and dark purple fruits are harvested towards the end.
Eating green or ripe olives fresh off the tree isn’t advised. A component called glucoside oleuropein, a bitter phenolic molecule, renders the tiny fruits quite unpleasant. Olives must be treated and cured before they can be consumed. Here are a few ways that olives can be cured:
Lye-curing: This process is both time- and cost-effective. As such, this process is favored by large commercial olive producers. Lye-curing involves submerging raw olives in alkaline lye solution vats, and then rinsing them with water to remove the lye. Because of this processing is with lye, the olives can sometimes have a chemical aftertaste or lack of a robust flavor.
Brine-curing: Brine-curing is the process through which fully ripened, dark purple or black olives are gradually fermented in brine. This process can take anywhere from three months to a year. Because the brine serves to heighten the fruit's natural flavors, brine-cured olives are frequently sweet and full of deep flavors. Brine curing is typically used in the production of Sicilian-style green olives and Greek-style black olives.
Salt-curing: In this process, olives are cured in salt for a little over a month which pulls out the olives’ moisture and bitterness. Once the salt has been removed, the olives are then typically soaked in olive oil to keep them juicy and plump. The flavor and texture of dry-cured olives are reminiscent of prunes, but with an intense flavor.
Water-curing: Because this approach is the slowest, it is therefore used the least. Water-curing involves soaking and rinsing the olives in plain water, then repeating this process over and over. Some olive producers first cure their olives in a water bath, and then place the olives in a brine of salt and vinegar that has been seasoned. Kalamata olives are typically made in this process.
Air-curing: With this process, olives can be cured either on the branch or in the open air, depending on the circumstances. We see this processed used on some olives in Italy, Greece and California. For example, the Thassos Throumpa olive from Greece have been allowed to cure naturally while still on the tree. When completely and over ripe, these olives are wrinkly and deep black.
As for flavoring, while many producers opt to sell their olives as is, others producers prefer to add some additional flavor to their olives. Common additions are oregano, peppercorns, and lemon or orange zest.
Nutrition and Health Benefits
The health benefits of olives and olive oil have been praised for many years. Olive oil is one of the key ingredients to the extremely healthy Mediterranean diet which has been observed as contributing to fewer instances of heart disease. Oil olive is full of antioxidants and healthy monounsaturated fats which may help prevent strokes, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Recent studies, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, have shown that replacing butter or margarine with olive oil may reduce death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer and dementia. According to this study, by replacing just two tablespoons of butter, butter, mayo or other dairy fat with the equivalent amount of olive oil showed a 34% reduction in death.
Olives themselves are equally healthy. Healthline reports that 3.5 grams of olives (a little over half a regular sized can) contains only 115-145 calories. That’s about 59 calories per 10 olives. Olives are considered a low-carb food, with the majority of the carbs being fiber. Additionally, olives contain a high amount of vitamin E, and black olives are known to be a good source of iron.
Olives remain a popular fruit whether in its original form or as oil. With their many varieties, delicious tastes, and reported health benefits, it is easy to see why olives are enjoyed around the world.
If you are a consumer and buy olives at your local supermarket, small gourmet shop or online at sellers like RudiGourmand, you are in for a treat. And if you are a producer, who grows and processes olives or olive oils and are looking to sell them to consumers in the United States, check out RudiCoder’s PriorNotify app which automates the US FDA process. No matter if you produce them or consume them, olives are the surprising and delicious fruit!