Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Table olives (Ελιές τσακιστές και παστές)

Despite the excess sunshine that we are still experiencing here in Chania, it's time to start picking olives off the trees in our olive grove to put into salt, lemon juice or vinegar to make olives edible as fruit (rather than to be pressed for olive oil). There are two main types of olives grown in Hania: lianes (very small fruit, only used for pressing into oil) and tsounates (used both for table olives and olive oil). Lianes are preferred for their endurance to stay on the tree without dropping off too early due to adverse weather conditions, but they are too small to be turned into table olives. They can be hand-picked or the branches can be "thrashed" by hand or machine tree by tree. Tsounates are not that sturdy; they drop off the trees at the slightest breeze, so nets are placed under the trees at the end of summer to catch them as they drop during the autumn and up to the middle of winter. They can then be gathered for pressing at a convenient time for the owner, but since they were already on the ground for quite a while before they were pressed, they will contain less oil than lianes. By the way, all olives start their life green; they all turn purple black over time.

Black olives are preferred for salting, while green olives are marinated in lemon juice, or salt and water; people choose whatever method suits their time and taste. Black olives are put in vinegar, also known as Kalamata olives, pointing the way to their origins, Kalamata. I have put olives in vinegar before, and they tasted delicious, but it's not common practice in Hania to do this, as the olive varieties grown here are different to those of other regions in Greece. Lemon juice (or bitter orange) and salt are the main preserving agents here. We don't eat olives straight from the trees; they are far too bitter.

The olives need to be large and firm. Pick them straight off the trees, not from the ground, and make sure they are as unblemished as possible. The fallen ones will be full of dackos flies and their eggs. These insects are harmless to humans, but cause great destruction to the trees and fruit. Separate the black olives from the green. Wash the black olives to free them of dust, then dry them well. You don't want any excess moisture when using salt. Place the black olives in a container that can be sealed with a lid, layering them in large-grain sea salt. When the container is filled to the top, close it and leave the olives in a cool dark place for up to a month to wrinkle and darken in the salt. Once you open the container a month later, drain them of the excess liquid that accumulates due to moisture. Take a cup full of olives and wash away the salt. Put them in a small bowl to serve. They can be kept in the fridge or at room teperature; They keep just as well both ways. While you're eating the washed olives, the salted ones will keep just as well in their original container. This method of preserving olives is really fuss-free.

Now for the bothersome green olives. They can be picked any time once they have grown to the size of an acorn nut, and should be firm and bright green. They need to be crushed with a wooden mallet on an easy-to-clean kitchen-top (or plastic bread board - I doubt a wooden one cleans well) before being placed in tap water for two-three days in order to remove most of their bitterness. Try not to smash the olives with the mallet; give them a firm tap so that they will open without the pip coming away. This job is a dirty one; anything the olive juice stains will remain there for life, unless you clean it off with bleach. Your fingers will turn as black as the black olives themselves. I always wear plastic gloves to do this job, as I don't think it would look too good going into an English lesson in the evening looking as if my fingers have developed gangrene. The best place to do this job is in the garden on a clear day when you won't feel the cold. I even keep an old T-shirt to wear just for this job. I have tried slitting the olives with a kinfe instead of crushing them, but they do need more time in the water (up to four days) and the taste is not the same, meaning I liked it, but not so my traditional Cretan husband. He has forbidden my use of this method.

Once you have crushed the olives, place them in a big open bowl of water, once again in a cool dark place for two-four days, depending on the method used to cut them. Change the water as often as you can; this removes the bitterness more quickly. After this period, drain the olives and pack them in glass jars, preferably big ones. You now have to start squeezing lemons for their juice, a tiring process than can leave you with hand-strain injury. The good part is that your hands will become as clean as they were before you started crushing the olives. Place a heaped tablespoon of salt (more if the jar is very large), and pour the unstrained lemon juice over the olives and a few tablespoons of olive oil to seal it, then close the jar with a tight-fitting lid. The olives will be ready in about two-three weeks, depending on the crushing method, their maturity at picking and individual taste.

Generally speaking, Greek dishes calling for olives cooked in meals, whether ripe or unripe, are NOT generally the norm, except treated ripened green ones in a tomato-stewed squid dish, where they are added in the last few minutes of cooking. I can't understand the reasoning why they are added in tomato-seafood dishes, but then puttanesca wouldn't be the same without black olives, would it?

The final method for marinating olives is to clean them by running tap water over them, place them in a clean coca-cola bottle, fill the bottle with tap water and add a tablespoon of sea salt on the top, before closing the bottle securely and leaving them in the bottle, WITHOUT opening it until about Easter time. Keep them in a cool, dark place. My bachelor uncles gave me this recipe. I have tried it in the past, and I prefer them done this way - they have a mature pure olive taste. We did not have enough green olives this time round to preserve them in this way, but I will try to remember to put some aside next year. When opening the bottle in April, beware: open it as slowly as possible, because the olives will have been fermenting all that time, and when you unscrew the cap, they may explode out of the bottle unexpectedly!

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See also:
A day in the field
The rape of the countryside

A summer garden
A winter garden
An autumn garden