It’s National Olive Day! These little fruits (Olives are a fruit known as a drupe, the same as plumbs and mangos) are big components of a traditional Mediterranean diet — from hanging on a tree waiting to be harvested, all the way to a fresh-pressed oil perfect for salad, cooking, and more.
You might not think of these salty delicacies as something healthy to eat, but olives are an excellent source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, important fatty acids, natural antioxidants, and iron. Currently, scientists are studying whether fermented olives have probiotic effects. This could lead to improved digestive health.
Olives are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. They’re associated with many health benefits, especially for heart health and cancer prevention. Oleic acid, the main fatty acid in olives, is associated with improved heart health. It may regulate cholesterol levels and protect LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidation.
The rates of osteoporosis are lower in Mediterranean countries than in the rest of Europe, leading to speculation that olives might protect against this condition. Some of the plant compounds found in olives and olive oil have been shown to help prevent bone loss in animal studies. Whether it's the Greek black olives or the Spanish green olives, they're repositories of a host of benefits ranging from their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
While there are more varietals, ﬂavors, and colors of olives than we can even count — estimates are in the 100s — they all stem from the same olive tree species, Olea Eurpoaea.
The most common varieties of whole olives are:
- Spanish green olives, pickled
- Greek black olives, raw
- California olives, ripened with oxidation, then pickled
Because olives are very bitter, they’re not usually eaten fresh. Instead, they’re cured and fermented. This process removes bitter compounds like oleuropein, which are most abundant in unripe olives.
Processing olives may take anywhere from a few days up to a few months depending on the method used. Processing methods often rely on local traditions, which affect the fruit’s taste, color, and texture. However, there are some varieties that don’t need processing and can be consumed when fully ripe.
Like wine or coﬀee, there are so many nuanced ﬂavors and colors that can develop during production. Olive curing is a true art and oftentimes the most important factor in determining what an olive will taste like, feel like, look like, etc.
Olives are a living and breathing food — and no two taste exactly the same. They’re also extremely versatile — holding up to stuﬃng (cheese, peppers, etc.), marinating (herbs, citrus, etc.), roasting, grilling, frying, etc. Like cheese, wine, or chocolate, the foundation is similar throughout, but the nuances and subtleties across varietals makes this fruit exciting to explore, to taste, and to cook with.
It helps to look at the full timeline of how the olive is harvested, cured, and packaged. The olives are ﬁrst harvested in November and December. The olives then gently cure for several months to fully develop their ﬂavor. During this time, the olives are also regularly tested and tasted to ensure the curing process stops at the precise time the olives are ready. Finally, the olives are packaged and shipped. The “new crop” olives that arrive in summer are actually harvested the previous winter.
In addition to being the cherry (or olive) on top of International Mediterranean Diet celebrations, National Olive Day on June 1 marks Kalamata olive season when last winter’s crops are cured and begin arriving from Greece. They are aﬀected by weather, and while we preserve and cure them to enjoy year-round, these wonderful fruits are often best when fresh.
Here's a list of some of the phenomenal ways in which olives can be used:
- SALADS: whether it's a salad that incorporates olives as a fruit or one that is garnished with olive oil, its power is tremendous. According to scientists, it can protect your heart from fatal air pollution or even lower blood pressure.
- BREADS: here's your chance to reduce the damage that flour can cause to you by adding olives or olive oil to your bread. You'll see a drastic change to your hair and skin texture along with an ease in digestion.
- DIPS: what's more enticing than relishing some pita bread with olive based hummus? Aside from the health benefits, what's more important is how delicious they taste.
- PASTAS: pastas and spaghettis are topped either exclusively with pasta or paired with other vegetables like broccoli, bell peppers, chicken, mushrooms, etc.
- PIZZA: who can refuse a plain cheese margherita pizza with black olives? Black olives can also be marinated with spices and eaten as is. They taste so soothing and lip-smacking delicious!
- BRUSCHETTA: It's healthy, appealing, and yet fulfilling. And when you spot olives on a bruschetta, it's irresistible. It makes sense to make olives a staple in your kitchen. Olives are not difficult to purchase or sight. Once you've got your hands on a can or tin, make sure to extract the maximum health benefits.
This fruit produces olive oil, and that is its main use, but the actual olives, known as table olives, are a very important part of the Mediterranean and Greek food culture. While there are several recipes that include olives as an ingredient, particularly in Crete, generally olives are best known in the Greek food culture as a food on its own. Traditionally, it was common to have olives with bread for breakfast or a mid morning snack or along with herbal tea in the evening. Olives were something one did not need to buy; it was what the land produced. Olives are also strongly associated with the Greek-Orthodox fasting period. Since animal products such as cheese were not allowed, olives became an accompaniment for all meals during this time.
As an ingredient the olive takes many forms in Greek cuisine. It is added to dough to make what we call eliopsomo, olive bread, it is a common accompaniment with beans and lentils, there are also olive pies as well as combinations of olives with meat or seafood, and of course there are even sweet olive preserves.
Greece has several varieties of olives and preparation methods. Many Greek olive varieties have Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which means that the olives must be grown and processed within a specific region of Greece. An example of this are the popular olives Kalamon also known as Kalamata olives, these olives can only be named and labeled Kalamata olives if they are from the Kalamata region in Greece, but again this only applies to the European Union, so if you are in the U.S. for example, you can find “Kalamata” olives from Spain and Turkey, and well they are not really Kalamata. Kalamata olives made in Greece are picked when they are black and ripe, whereas many “kalamata” style olives are picked when they are still green, and ripened with artificial methods which may result in a different flavor and nutritional profile.
So, if until now you thought that olives were only for salads, pasta, pizza, and martinis why not keep a jar and enjoy them with some bread and cheese. Try them all. Roast them with chicken, sprinkle them on pizza, bake them into bread, or add them to a salad. Simply put, there are so many ways to use olives.
Why not whip up this amazing olive-based dip featuring our Bellisari’s Blue Cheese, Honey, & Shallot Spread today to deliciously celebrate National Olive Day: https://bellisaris.com/pages/muffuletta-hoagie-dip
Serve with pita bread, crackers, or spread on a sandwich. This rich mixture is layered with flavors that compliment the black olive component, making it stand out perfectly. Happy National Olive Day from all of us at Bellisari’s!