Barnea, suri, kalamata? Your supermarket or farmer’s market usually offers a good variety of olives. Juicy green, black, brown or purple olives glistening in their own oil. Olives seasoned with chilies, lemons and herbs; olives pitted and left empty; olives stuffed with red pimentos; olives in brine or in wine marinade – enough olives to make your senses reel.
And like grape varieties for wine, there are more kinds of olives in the world than you’ll ever know. Every region where olives are grown yields a particular variety, each with its unique shape, size, and flavor.
It gets confusing to list the names of the olives grown even in a relatively small area, because one variety may be known by different local names, or different olives may go by the same name. To add to the confusion, some olives are grown for oil, some for the table, and some are sold to be consumed either way. An attempt is being made to sort out olive varieties via DNA identification.
Black olives are those that were allowed to ripen before harvest. In other words, all olives start out green, and grow darker as they ripen. Different varieties will mature into blue, red, brown, purple, or black. The flavor of the same olive will change the longer it stays on the tree. How it’s fermented and seasoned after the harvest changes its flavor too, and there are infinite ways to treat an olive, subject only to the imagination and local resources of the producer.
But buyer beware: all that’s olive is not gold. Canned black California olives are green olives that have been cured in a lye solution then treated with oxygen and ferrous gluconate to fix the black color. Harmless, but bland. Olives treated with lye cure quickly but have lost much of their original flavor.
Here are a few of the best-known olives, and one or two particularly popular in the Middle East.
Kalamatas are the best-known Greek olive. Its color is deep purple and is often preserved in red wine. Sometimes you can find black or red Kalamatas.
Castelvetrano, an Italian olive, said to be the country’s favorite snacking olive. It’s light green, meaty, and mild.
Manzanilla or in Spanish “little apple.” Eaten green or black. One of Spain’s most popular varieties and often with a pimento inside. Since Spain is still the world’s largest olive exporter, it’s likely you’ve eaten Manzanilla olives, and can find them easily in the supermarket.
Beldi is the Moroccan olive dry-cured in salt. Black, shriveled, chewy, and with an intense flavor. The texture is comparable to that of sun-dried tomatoes. Salty, salty, salty! Pair Beldi olives with mild cheeses, fruit, and white or rose wines. Very good on pizza, although a pain to pit.
Gordal often called “jumbo olives.” Gordals come from Sevillia, Spain, and are cured while green. They’re handy for stuffing with cheese, almonds, cured meat, capers… anything you think will taste well inside these huge olives.
Picholine. Small, green, and with a nutty flavor, picholine olives originated in France but are now grown all over the world.
Suri olives originated in Lebanon and considered to be one of the oldest varieties. It’s harvested green and produces a peppery oil.
Barnea is an olive variety claimed by Israel. Nowadays the Barnea is grown in Argentina and Australia too. Grown mostly for its mild, fruity oil.
Gaeta olives come from Italy. They’re small and oval-shaped. Black Gaetas are salt-cured, which gives them a wrinkled texture. Brine-cured Gaetas are smooth and dark violet color. After curing, Gaetas are stored in olive oil.
olives came from Tuscany, although today Leccinos are cultivated around the world. They have a light brown skin and a unique sweet/spicy flavor.
Mission olives are the only American variety recognized by the International Olive Council. Tradition has it that Franciscan missionaries from Spain brought the trees to California in the late 1700s. The fruit is small, harvested while green, and considered an endangered heritage variety by the Slow Food movement.
Make your own olive marinade
Want to make your own marinated olives, like the ones pictured above? Here’s a recipe.
2 cups olives, either one variety or an assortment of different colors and sizes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Peel of 1 large lemon
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 large bay leaf, broken up, or 2 small whole bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried thyme, or rosemary, or oregano, or za’atar
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Optional: 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon chili pepper flakes, or to taste