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An olive mission

TGIFOOD

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An olive mission

(Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay)

Once you’ve tamed the bitterness of an olive, victory is sweet.

This accompanies this method

My Mission olive tree would be justified in being jealous as hell over all the attention the blimmin’ navel orange tree has been getting. But it’s seen off stiff competition before.

I planted the olive and the kareeboom on the same day, circa September 2017. I’d been inspired by a visit to Richmond, Northern Cape, just off the N1 not far from Hanover, one of the Karoo towns Olive Schreiner once lived in. She lived in Cradock too, and Richmond, and De Aar, and Kimberley, and Matjiesfontein. I wondered, on that visit, if olive trees would grow wherever she had once lived.

Olive (Schreiner) has always been a part of my own Karoo journey, and now olives are too. On that visit to Richmond, in the garden alongside our guest cottage, were two olive trees taller than the house. I marvelled at their height and at how, despite their resolute strength, they retained an elegant beauty and effortless grace. Returning to Cradock, I found a Mission olive at our local plant nursery and in the ground it went. The kareeboom I had also bought was a little taller than the olive, and I planted it a few metres away.

Battle commenced. For two years I watched the fight as each of the trees sparred for ascendancy. The kareeboom was the clear winner, the bookies’ favourite, and given its head start of about half a metre its lead seemed unassailable. But I was still putting my money on the Mission olive.

Up the kareeboom went, all through 2018, until it neared the height of the house. The olive stood no chance.

The olive tree bided its time. Throughout the winter of 2020 it edged closer and closer to the now sturdy kareeboom’s highest branch, then in September it edged ahead, just a centimetre or two. Like a champion athlete who had slowly but inexorably edged forward and then found the wind to power past the frontrunner, once the tree had achieved its mission there was no stopping it.

Today, the olive is a good two metres higher, and the kareeboom looks sadly squat by comparison.

One thing the olive had given me, in the January of 2020, was a modest harvest. Ten drupes does not a bottle of olives make, but it was a start and an indication that the tree was in good working order and would deliver. This January-February saw a bigger yield and I was able to harvest about 50 in all, once I’d waited for the slowpokes to catch up.

Family friends from KZN had stayed with us at Easter and told me how they brine their superb olives, which they do once a year, and I committed it all to mind, then spent some time browsing olive lore and the methodology of curing and bottling them.

I ended up using the water-cure method, which is similar to the water-and-salt method. Both of these are quick cures, relatively; all done in three weeks. Other ways take much longer.

They also reassured me that each year the crop would grow and that just one tree can host a great number of olives. My optimistic Aries outlook has me imagining rows and rows of bottled olives in the years to come. Meanwhile, my second Mission olive is now as tall as the house in the opposite garden and that tree isn’t even in play yet.

The curing process may seem daunting but if you consider that all you’re doing is changing the water once a day and refilling it, it’s a cinch. 

Then: the fun of choosing your aromatics; I didn’t cut any corners, as you’ll see from my recipe. The best olives I can remember eating were from Selfridges Food Hall during a trip to London in the mid-Nineties. Whoever had made them had pulled no punches. There was lemon in there, and garlic, herbs and chilli. Just wonderful.

As I write, my solitary bottle of homemade olives has just arrived back home after a shoot in Louis Pieterse’s photographic studio up the road, preening for the camera. I bottled it on the 1st of May and have just unscrewed the lid and dipped a teaspoon in.

My mind went straight back to London, circa 1996. Mission: accomplished. But it’s only a practice run for the bumper crop of 2022. 

Water-curing olives

Wash the picked olives and pat them dry. With a small sharp knife, cut a slit the full length of one side of each olive.

Place them in a bowl and cover with cold water.

Keep the bowl in a cool place away from sunlight.

A day later you will see that the water has discoloured. This is the result of the water drawing out the glucoside, a phenolic compound called oleuropein.

Once a day, empty the water out, fill it again, roil them around in the water to wash them, and drain again.

Fill with water to cover and leave for 24 hours. Repeat this process once a day for three weeks.

Water and salt-curing olives

This process is similar to the water-cured method above but also uses salt. The brine needs to be 1:10 (that is, one part salt to 10 parts water). To test whether there is sufficient salt, a test known as the egg method is used. Once you have stirred the salt into the water, put a raw whole egg in and see if it floats. If it sinks, add a little more water and test again. When the egg floats on the surface, there is enough salt in the water. Follow the method as above, but reset the salt: water ratio after every daily water change. Olives cured in this way should be ready for brining in oil and aromatics in three weeks IF they are slit first as per the above method. If they are not slit, it will take as long as three to six months. The only way to test whether they are ready for brining is to taste one and decide if the bitterness is still too deep for your palate.

Preserving and bottling the olives

For the solution, the ratio of salt to water is 1:6 parts.

Ingredients

¼ cup coarse sea salt with no preservatives etc, not iodated salt

½ cup red wine vinegar

1 ½ cups water

1 lemon, sliced

2 cloves garlic

1 chilli

1 or 2 rosemary sprigs

Olive oil

Method

After the water- or salt- and water curing described above, they’re ready for bottling, and as you can see I was looking for the flavour of those Selfridges olives from all those years ago.

Measure the coarse sea salt into a bowl and pour over the boiled water. Stir until the salt is dissolved. Leave to cool.

Add the red wine vinegar. Put the olives into sterilised jars and add sliced lemon, rosemary, garlic cloves and a whole chilli.

Pour the salt-water solution over and fill till near the top, leaving a 1 cm gap at the top of the jar into which you pour olive oil to the brim. Close the lid tightly and store in a dark cupboard for three to four weeks. DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected] 

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All Comments 3

  • An excellent article. I have 4 youngish olive trees in my little garden in Fish Hoek. 2 Missions which had a few olives this year and are already starting to set flowers for what I hope will be a useful crop. One Frantoia which is the oldest tree in years but was transplanted 4 years ago when I moved home and it has not shown any inclination to flower yet. One seedling olive which I thought was a wild olive but this year it had 2 fully developed olives much like mission. I have bottled lots of olives in the past using the brine and washing method, which I harvested in several places and this year I want to do my own. Lets hope we both achieve our olive mission.

  • You don’t need to be so gentle with them, they’ve been around for millennia. The salt method is best, but after the first water change you need to change it only once a week for three or four. Then add just salt and vinegar for the brine, all else is modern fetish. Last year we got about 7 buckets from one tree. This year, zip! I think our tree has Covid.

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