Summer is here and it is time to snack on olives, garnish with olives and celebrate the harvest and curing from last years harvest. The olive tree boasts two prizes—the olive itself and the precious oil pressed from the fruit’s flesh. A product like olives and olive oil is so unique and odd when you think about the magical process by which it becomes edible. The trees need a lot of attention; they take a tremendous amount of time before they produce substantive fruit, and the process of converting the fruit into an edible product is complex. Still, it is safe to say we are all thankful for the process and its product. If you want know more about specific olives, check out the product page.
The olive tree has been given the Latin name Olea europaea and is from the botanical family called Oleaceae. It is an evergreen that typically grows from 10-40 ft (3-12 m) tall. The branches are fine and many, and the leathery leaves are spear-shaped and dark green on their tops and silver on their undersides. The trees bloom in the late spring and produce clusters of small, white flowers. Olives grow erratically (unless the trees are cultivated and irrigated) and tend to either produce in alternate years or bear heavy crops and light ones alternately. Seedlings do not produce the best trees. Instead, seedlings are grafted to existing tree trunks or trees are grown from cuttings. Olives are first seen on trees within eight years, but the trees must grow for 15-20 years before they produce worthwhile crops, which they will do until they are about 80 years old. Once established, the trees are enduring and will live for several hundred years.
Olives mature on the tree and can be harvested for green table olives when the fruit is immature or left on the tree to ripen, with a range from green, to brown and to black. The ripe olives are also harvested for processing as food but are left on the trees still longer if they are to be used for oil. Six to eight months after the flowers bloomed, the fruit will reach its greatest weight; and 20-30% of that weight (excluding the pit) is oil. In order to produce edible olives, harvested olives are cleaned, most often treated with a caustic soda (lye) solution which is rinsed away, and then cured in brine made of salt, oil, and flavorings.
· For brined green olives, the salinity begins at 12%-14% and is increased by 2% every two to three weeks until a maximum solution of 22-24% is reached.
· For brined black olives, the curing begins at 8-9% salinity; this is increased by 1-2% every two weeks until a maximum solution of 22-24% is reached.
· For dry cured olives, the dry curing approach starts with ripe, soft olives and results in salty, chewy varieties of dried or oil cured olives. Before curing, the olives are gently “smashed” to allow moisture to permeate their skins. Then the fruit is layered and covered with salt for four weeks. After curing, the olives are immersed in hot water to remove the salt, rinsed in cold water, and spread out to dry. The olives are then coated with olive oil (which is why they are sometimes called “oil cured”) before being packed and sterilized.
There are three determining factors to the flavor color and texture of an olive: the most important is the raw material (type of olive), next the color as determined by the timing of the harvest, and finally the texture and flavors as determined by the curing method. The fruit can be harvested when it is green and unripe, fully ripened to black or any stage in between. Older fruit can be salt-cured or dry cured to produce a salty, wrinkled product. Damaged fruit can still be used by pressing it into oil. It is the combination of the harvest, the cure, and any added flavors that yield the characteristics sought by the producer and consumer.
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