We went olive foraging in the abandoned olive groves around here, which we've been doing each autumn for the last several years (here and here). This year, though, I have a new way of preparing the olives we picked.
Last summer, in fact, while traveling with Tom on a part business, part family trip, we met a chemist and food scientist with a specialization in olives, and I got to chatting with him about my fondness for foraging and putting olives in brine. He politely told me that the method I was using was totally wrong.
I was using the traditional, ancient rules that my neighbors (and a trusted regional cookbook) had taught me.
Have you ever tasted a ripe olive from a tree? They're totally inedible: so sharply bitter that you have to spit them right out. It's a wonder that anyone even considered these small, bad-tasting fruits could be fit for human consumption! The traditional method for curing olives, turning the fresh drupes into edible food, is to soak them in water for twenty days & twenty nights, rinsing them out at least two or three times each day, and then to put them in brine to preserve them.
The scientist told me that water alone doesn't do anything to the olives - only the brine itself cures them. Yet the traditional method in my region calls for it, and until fairly recently, there wasn't any running water around here: to get the water necessary to soak and rinse out the olives, trips had to be made to the river, and water had to be hauled, multiple times a day! Can you imagine? All that carrying of water, for centuries, was utterly pointless. Those peasants might as well have used it to make a tea, and spent their time sitting by the fireside, sipping tea and saving their energy.
The anthropologist in me was dumbstruck; it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that science had proved this traditional method not just wrong, but useless. Didn't anyone ever taste an olive after all that rinsing process to verify whether it was edible? Of course, why should they, if that's the way olives had always been cured? I hadn't tasted them, either.
Anyway, this year I'm sipping tea by the fire while the olives sit in their briny bath, waiting for twenty days & twenty nights (you can't dismiss traditions entirely), making a new batch of brine now and then, while waiting for our bitter drupes to turn into tasty olives.