Fall may mean colorful leaves and apple harvests in the temperate regions of the globe, but in Southern Arizona and warm desert regions around the world, it is olive harvest time. Several years ago, a famous author died, and many notables who had been guests in his home on the coast of Southern Italy recalled their visits. One woman remembered walking through the olive groves and plucking and eating juicy olives. I laughed aloud when I read that. She may have plucked something, but it wasn’t olives. Olives off the tree are very bitter and they must be processed to be edible. The bitterness is due to a substance called oleuropein.
Various cultures have their own methods of removing the bitterness from olives. There’s the dry salt method, the brine method, the water method and the lye method. For 30 years I have followed instructions taught by the late Dr. Robert H. Forbes, who became dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona in 1899. He had made an intensive study of the home processing of curing olives. His process uses lye and the method has always worked for me. Last week when I went to the hardware store to buy the lye and told the clerk what I was going to do with it, he kept cautioning me that it was poison and came close to refusing to sell it to me. By following the instructions carefully, I never poisoned myself or the recipients of my olives.
(Aside: Dr. Forbes was still alive when I was a young journalism student in 1964. I interviewed him at his home on the edge of the University of Arizona campus on Olive Street, surrounded by gnarled old olive trees. His house stood where the Center for Creative Photography is now.)
You can home process green olives, black olives or those somewhere in between. Many people with olive trees would be happy to have you harvest from their yard and cut down on the mess when the olive drop. I just knock on the door and ask. Then later I leave a small jar of finished olives on their porch with a note.
It’s too much typing to explain Dr. Forbes’ method, but the good folks at UC Davis have done a complete description of each method of olive processing and you can find them here. The difference in Dr. Forbes’ lye method is that it doesn’t call for a changing of the lye bath. You just leave the olives in the original lye solution until either taste or a litmus paper shows that the bitterness has been removed. For me, this has been between five and seven days. But lye is cheap and you’ll have more than necessary, so if changing helps, why not? You can find another whole way to dealing with olives in a months’ long process here.
If you happen to live in Tucson, Jill Lorenzini will be discussing olive curing at the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market on the afternoon of October 24.
With the lye plan, after the bitterness is gone, the olives are rinsed (and rinsed!) to remove the lye and hardened with successively strong salt brine solutions. Lastly, they are freshened in water. Whatever your processing plan, I like to flavor mine with a mixture of olive oil, wine vinegar, garlic cloves and fresh herbs from my garden. You can also slip in a small chile.
Home processing olives is neither difficult nor overly time consuming, but you do need to get yourself some big glass jars and commit about five minutes a day to the endeavor. For that little bit of effort, you can end up with a year’s supply of olives for only the cost of lye and salt and some nice gifts for your friends and family. Just one caution: don’t tell the clerk what you are buying the lye for.
One more thing: My book on the 10,000 years of culinary history that led to Tucson being named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy has entered editing and over the next few months I’ll be posting a few bits of the most interesting information I learned in the two years I spent researching. Please follow me on my Facebook author page (Carolyn Niethammer author). I learned lots and would like to share it with you.