Marinating olives, Sicilian style and simply – The Denver Post

Olives are not an acquired taste, to reprise the common bias, except in one turn of that phrase. You acquire them; you taste them. Done.

While we’re all too ready to use olive oil to cook our food, we infrequently think of the fruit that made that oil as a food.

Eating them probably fulfilled their first purpose, back thousands of years ago in that region from which the tree olea europaea originated, Anatolia (present-day Turkey), then from those countries to which it migrated in short order, those surrounding the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas, from which nearly all the olive oil made in the world derives today.

Botanically, the olive is a drupe, as are cherries, almonds, and plums — a fair amount of flesh and a stone-hard pit. Its tree is an evergreen and, like some of its species such as bristle cone pines, is extraordinarily long-lived. Many in its lands of origin are well over 1,000 years in age yet still produce annual harvests of fruit.

Because the olive, when young as a newly formed fruit, is also extraordinarily bitter, it requires tempering before it can be eaten out of hand or used in cooking. Hence, for those same thousands of years, methods of curing them (drying, salting, washing, oiling) have fermented out most of the bitterness. (The most aggressive of these methods, the use of lye or other caustics, dispatches of the bitterness most quickly but doesn’t develop ancillary flavors, as do the other methods.)

Most olives take their names from their place of origin, such as the gorgeously green, mammoth, sweet and fruity Castelvetrano (Sicily) or the small, dark brown Nicoise (Nice, France). Technically the Nicoise is the cultivar Cailletier, but no one calls it that at the grocery store; the Italians call the Cailletier the Taggiasca and it makes nearly all the great oils of Liguria.

Other olives get their names from their cultivar, such as the Picholine, from France, or the Cerignola, from Italy, fatigue green and fat and distinctively savory as olives go.

Finally, some olives are called after their method of curing or their style of preparation, such as the semi-dried and oil-cured blacks of Greece (“Greek style”), or the “Sicilian-style” olives that are merely marinated in flavorings in any number of various ways, few of which indeed originate in Sicily.

Today’s recipe could rightly be called “Sicilian style,” though it comes from my Denver-based (or previously Chicago-based) kitchen. It’s “St. John-style” olives, but then it could be anyone’s; that’s the idea. Also, the key to both its flavor and favor is to use not any single sort of olive.