Stuff of legends


With a history that dates back to Ancient Greece, olives are truly the stuff of legends.

Mark Sickles/NYTRNG
Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2004 at 4:10 p.m.

Jud Carter packs 11 trillion olives a year. He eats some of those himself.

Carter, president of Lindsay Olive Company in Lafayette, Calif., likes his olives black, chopped and between two slices of French sourdough bread. He grew up on olive sandwiches - chopped olives mixed with just enough mayonnaise to make them spreadable.

The olive sandwich is how his Grandfather and Grandmother Bell got rolling in the olive business, he explained. The Bells started selling olives in 1912. When Arthur Bell introduced canned chopped olives in the 1930s, he had to create his own market. So he and his wife developed a strategy.

Grandmother Bell would choose a lunch counter in the San Francisco area and order a chopped olive sandwich. Of course it wasn't on the menu, so she had to explain how to make it, all the while raving about its merits. The next day, Grandfather Bell went to the same counter, offered the cook a sample of canned chopped olives, and, hopefully, made a sale.

By 1938, the company had 12 employees and packed 7,000 cases of olives annually. Today Bell-Carter Foods, which owns Lindsay, has the largest table olive processing facility in the United States and second largest in the world. One entire plant exclusively slices olives for pizza makers and home and restaurant cooks. Carter and his brother, Tim, are the third generation in the family olive business.

OLYMPIC BEGINNINGS

Olive trees were first cultivated on the Greek island of Crete in 3500 B.C. At the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C., an olive tree branch was awarded to each winner to symbolize peace. In the Panathenaic Games, which took place every four years in Athens to honor the goddess Athena, winners were rewarded with olive oil, sometimes as much as 5 tons of it, according to an Athens-based Greek product company.

Olives and olive oil were used as food and as medicine. Trees bearing olives during the time of Jesus are still producing. In fact, for thousands of years the olive tree flourished in Spain, Tunisia, Morocco and Mediterranean countries. Then Spanish settlers carried branch cuttings in the mid-sixteenth century to Peru. Franciscan monks brought the olive to Mexico and then north to California by way of the missions in the 1700s.

But it was not until the late 1800s that olives were commercially cultivated in Central and Northern California. According to the California Olive Industry, Freda Ehmann and her son, Edwin, owners of a large olive orchard in the Oroville area, deserve the credit. Tooling around with various processing methods, Freda began experimenting with 280 gallons of olives in barrels on the back porch of her home - and an industry was born.

About 350 varieties of olive trees exist in the world; 10 to 12 of them are major table varieties. Most grown in California are Manzanillo and Sevillano, Carter said.

The earliest written recipes for olives date back to the first century, according to Paula Wolfert in ''The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen'' (Wiley, $34.95). The olives were crushed, sweetened with honey or seasoned with leeks, rue, celery and mint.

Olives end up with bitter, pungent, juicy, meaty or tangy flavors, depending on the process used, she explained.

''They are manipulated by various methods of curing, then preserved in oil or in ash solutions, vinegar or salt brine, or simply dried. Type, texture, seasoning and degree of oiliness give each type olive its distinct taste,'' Wolfert said.

Curing methods are lye, dry, natural and lye with fermentation.

When buying olives, look for a firm texture. The olive flavor should not be overwhelmed by seasoning.

''I've found that particular cheeses have an affinity for particular olives,'' writes Wolfert.

Some of her pairings:

- Gorgonzola with large, apple-green cerignola olives from Apulia, Italy

- Fresh mozzarella with Italian gaeta olives

- Sheep's milk cheese such as feta, with cracked green Greek olives, sprinkled with crushed oregano

- Spanish cabarales blue cheese with manzanilla olives.

TRADITION CONTINUES

Jud Carter delights in carrying on his grandmother's challenges. The other day he ordered waffles topped with sliced olives. ''Olives are a fruit,'' he told the puzzled waitress.

When he's cooking, he adds olives to tuna salad and pasta, he stuffs them with salami and cheese, he marinates them in extra-virgin olive oil and his own mix of herbs and spices.

One of his special recipes calls for olive trees, salt and a pillowcase. The process takes 48 to 52 days to turn the wintered olives plucked from his yard into Greek dried olives.

And what does Jud Carter do with 11 trillion olive pits every year?

He sells them to a company that dries the pits and burns them. The recycled energy is sold to help keep California in electricity.

Increasingly, supermarkets are carrying an assortment of olives. Olives and olive products are also available from Adriana's Caravan in New York at www.adrianascaravan.com or (212) 972-8804; Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass. at www.formaggiokitchen.com or (888) 212-3224; and Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich. at www.zingermans.com. Several varieties are available online from www.lindsayolives.com.

PROVENCAL OLIVE AND TOMATO TART

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 pound Roma tomatoes, sliced 1/8-inch thick

1 cup pitted olives, halved

2 teaspoons chopped thyme

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 cup grated gruyere cheese

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together warm water, yeast and sugar. Set aside for 5 minutes until mixture foams on top.

Mix in oil and egg. Add flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Knead together for about 5-8 minutes on a lightly floured surface until dough is smooth. Place dough in an oiled bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm area for 1 hour until doubled in size.

Roll out dough into a 13-inch circle. Transfer to an 11-inch tart pan, allowing sides to hang over the edges. Press sides into tart pan, then roll a rolling pin over the top of the tart pan to cut off overhanging edges of dough and discard.

Spread mustard onto the bottom of tart crust. Cover with concentric circles of sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle olives, thyme, pepper and remaining salt on top.

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Cover with cheese and continue baking for 5-10 minutes more until melted and golden brown.

Makes 6 servings.

- California Olive Industry, www.calolive.org

MOLDAVIAN POTATO SALAD WITH FETA

1 1/2 pounds small red or white waxy potatoes, scrubbed

Coarse salt

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed

1 small garlic clove, minced

Freshly ground black pepper

4 whole scallions, chopped

1/2 cup crumbled feta

1/3 cup chopped Kalamata olives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Put the potatoes in a saucepan, cover with cold water by at least an inch, add a good pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partway, and cook until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes on a rack set in the sink and let cool slightly in a single layer.

As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Drop them into a mixing bowl and pour on the olive oil. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and toss gently to combine. Be careful not to break up the potatoes.

Once potatoes have cooled to room temperature, add scallions, feta, olives, dill, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. If the salad appears dry, add a bit more olive oil.

Serve at room temperature, or cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. Let the salad sit out for about 20 minutes before serving.

Makes 4-6 servings.

- ''One Potato, Two Potato'' by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens (Houghton Mifflin, $35)

SLOW-ROASTED SPANISH OLIVES WITH ORANGES AND ALMONDS

2 pounds Spanish olives, such as manzanilla or gordal, with pits

1 orange, unpeeled, sliced into 1/8-inch circles

1 cup whole almonds with skins

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

10 fresh thyme sprigs

1 red chili pepper, halved lengthwise

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for 2 hours. Drain the oil out (keep it to use as a bread dip) and serve the olives warm or at room temperature with assorted cheeses.

Store in the refrigerator. The olives are great for snacks and parties.

Makes about 20 servings.

- ''Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen'' (Clarkson Potter, $32.50)

NUEVO CUBANO CHICKEN WITH SPANISH OLIVE PICADILLO SALSA

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 tablespoon Jamaican or Caribbean jerk seasoning

1 medium onion, chopped

1 red or green bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 can (10 oz.) diced tomatoes and green chilies, undrained

3/4 cup Spanish olives stuffed with pimiento, drained and halved

1/2 cup golden or dark raisins

1 tablespoon drained capers

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Heat oil in large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add chicken. Sprinkle half jerk seasoning over chicken. Cook 4 minutes. Turn and sprinkle remaining seasoning over chicken. Cook 4 more minutes. Transfer to plate and set aside.

Add onion, bell pepper and garlic to skillet. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes, olives, raisins, capers and Worcestershire sauce. Increase heat to medium-high and simmer 5 minutes. Return chicken to skillet, turning to coat. Continue cooking until chicken is fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve topped with olive mixture.

Makes 4 servings.

- Winner of the Lindsay Olive Recipe Contest

FRESH OLIVADA

1 pound mixed olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs (thyme and rosemary are a nice combination)

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 garlic cloves, minced

Grated zest of 1 orange

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Pinch of crushed red pepper

2 anchovy fillets, minced

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients and let sit at least 1/2 hour before serving. It will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days. Serve at room temperature.

Makes about 2 cups.

- ''One Potato, Two Potato''

Note: Olivada, also available in jars at most supermarkets, is versatile. Stir it into hot mashed potatoes. Use as sauce for linguine. Serve with salt-roasted potatoes or spread it on bread. For an elegant snack or appetizer, spread toasted pita triangles or baguette slices with goat cheese and top with olivada.

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