You may be an olive lover without truly understanding the process that leads to a handpicked olive (fresh from an olive branch), ending up on your side dish at a restaurant. The processing of olives is essential in order to maintain the freshness, crispness and quality of these pitted fruits. This post will take you on a short 101 through olive school and leave you feeling more knowledgeable on your favourite fruits!
Olives are preserved in brine to extend the period of time that they are at their height of quality and taste. The art of brine preservation also increases the depth of flavour within the olives and depending on the brine components, this can lead to a variety of different flavoured olives. Brine also protects olives by suspending them in the oil fluid. This prevents the olives from being bruised in transport and on the journey to the dinner table.
In terms of olive chemistry, olive oil is largely made up of something called ‘triacyglycerols’. These are simply a type of fat, so don’t be scared off too easily! On a molecular structural level, olive oil consists of a very long chain of carbon atoms and a couple of oxygen atoms which are all connected by chemical bonds. The structure is complex and different varieties of olives will have slightly different structures on a molecular level giving them their respectively different flavours and appearances. Olives also contain fatty acids and antioxidant!
The life cycle of an olive tree is extensive as they can thrive for centuries. They tend to be grown from cuttings taking from trees which have lived for at least 2 years. After 4 years of growth, the olive tree is then ready to grow its roots and at 5 years of age, the first olives are born after the tree has been wind pollinated. If damaged, olive trees are capable of re-growth and can continue bearing fruit for hundreds of years to come.
When plucked from a tree, olives are bitter due to the presence of ‘flavanol polyphenols’ and the curing process, which often involves a salt solution removes this strong taste. The varying tastes of olives are down to the length of time that they have been cured for and the ingredients within the brine. Olives cured in a salt brine will taste salty while olives cured or aerated will have a more vinegary flavour.
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