Greeks say “I ate bread and olives with him,” to denote an act of friendship. The olive branch is the universal symbol of peace. Like no other fruit, the olive is responsible for shaping an entire civilization. Its history is long and illustrious, and the legends surrounding it are rich and splendid. Mostly, though, literature and myth occupy themselves with praising the olive’s liquid gold. As for the fruit itself, though, its place on the table and in the life of the Mediterranean is also sacred.
Olives on the Table
Olives have been savored from prehistoric times in Greece, although most likely they were eaten uncured, plucked instead off the tree of from the ground, wrinkled and soft, once the fruit had ripened sufficiently on its own
Over time, of course, people worked out how to cure olives so that they tasted better–i.e., less bitter–and so that they could be stored for long periods of the year. The earliest and most basic way of doing this was simply to salt them. By Homeric times, olives had become a very important staple food, one that sustained farmers, shepherds and travelers alike. To this day, olives, together with bread or rusks and a little cheese, comprise an important part of the traditional Greek farmer’s midday snack eaten in the field.
The ancients Greeks were avid cooks and culinary experimenters, and they devised many different ways to cure and flavor olives. They knew, for example, that in addition to salting olives in order to preserve them, they could also be stored in olive oil or in vinegar and kept indefinitely. They made salt brines and also preserved olives in grape must and even honey or combinations of wine and honey. They used aromatic herbs, such as wild fennel and oregano, to season olives. Many of these techniques survive to this day. High technology has not really touched the ways in which olives are cured or seasoned. In fact, cured olives in modern Greece often go by the same names that the ancient Greeks gave to them. Olives had a unique place on the ancient table because they were both a food eaten by, but also necessary to the survival of, the masses. But they were also one of the most important early “appetizers,” usually served, perhaps with a little bread, before the main part of the meal had begun. Together with cheese, pickled bulbs, and certain vegetables, olives comprised the list of absolutely necessary foods in the ancient larder, foods which no household ever lacked. Olives came under the category of prosfagio, or food that was meant to be consumed before the actual meal. To this day, by and large, that is still the role that olives play on the Greek table. Greeks offer them often with a little ouzo or other eau de vie as a means of whetting, but not sating, the appetite.
Olives as a Staple During the Fast
In modern Greece, the olive plays an even more important role on the table because it is one of the staple foods consumed during the long periods of fasting dictated by the Greek Orthodox calendar. Until a generation ago, most Greeks abided by the religious laws that regulated diet, which meant that for just about half the year people abstained from meat and dairy products and flourished instead on vegetables, pulses, and grains. The olive was crucial during these long periods of physical and spiritual catharsis for one very simple reason: olive oil was prohibited on some days during fasting periods, namely Wednesdays and Fridays, but olives were not. Thus, they provided all the nutrition of the liquid gold that was otherwise forbidden.
Most of the ways in which Greeks cure and season their olives have come down through the centuries. Many of these methods have survived the test of time unchanged. First among them are the wrinkled black olives, probably the earliest consumed olives.
Tsakistes elies, or small cracked green olives, were prepared as early as the Byzantine era. The olives were smashed lightly with a wooden tool in order to break their flesh. They were then soaked in warm water, which helped make them less bitter, then sealed in clay jugs with layers of salt and water. Sometimes they were seasoned with a little wild fennel and then left for several months to cure. The method for doing this today is not all that different.
Another well-known method for curing olives that dates back to ancient times and was also prevalent in Byzantium, calls for steeping the olives in brine. These are called kolymbathes, or “floaters,” a name and technique still in use today. Some old methods have been lost to time and perhaps to changing tastes. Among the most interesting practice was that, of the Hellenistic Greeks, whereby ripe black or wrinkled olives were mixed with salt and oil, left for several days, and then preserved in a mixture of vinegar, honey and water, and sealed in clay jugs. Another method for curing olives that has been lost to time was the ancient technique applied to green olives, which were soaked in sea water in order that their bitterness leach out, then kept in clay jugs filled with wine must.
Olives in the Kitchen
Ironically, for all their importance as one of the staples of the Greek kitchen, olives traditionally do not appear in cooked dishes in Greece.
There are though some traditional dishes that call for olives. First and foremost are a whole array of salads. Olives are delicious matched with all sorts of vegetables, such as fresh ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and more. They are wonderful with vegetables preserved in brine or olive oil, such as roasted red peppers, pickled peppers, pickled cauliflower, etc. Greeks use olives in some sauces, namely tomato-based sauces that are served over pasta.
There are several breads and pies which call for olives, for example. In some parts of the country, stews often include olives. One such dish comes from the Ionian island of Zakynthos, where potatoes are stewed with onions, tomatoes and black olives. Another traditional dish calls for chicken stewed with green olives and feta. It comes from the Peloponnese. On the mainland, olives are roasted and served as a meze, and in Crete, one of the most delicious preparations is for something called oftes elies–roasted olives. This process intensifies the flavor and aroma of the olive and makes for one of the best appetizers in all of Greek cooking.
By and large, though, olives are meant to be savored as they are, a whole food, respected on its own.