Olive You

Dear Dara takes on the salty, savory, occasionally even burning issue of olive bars in our time

Dear Dara,

I'm a big foodie, and after growing up in Ann Arbor and living in London, Toronto, and other places, I've been so delighted to see the Twin Cities grow in its food selection over the past 20 years.

My story idea: Why don't you peruse the various olive bars in town and give a review? People think the olive bars in Lunds and Byerly's are good, but they don't hold a candle to Surdyk's olives. And I'd be curious to know of other places with good olives. I am rather loathe to give you my favorite as I don't want it written up and then bought up by everyone in town, but they have a French green olive called "Lucques" that is just barely brined, and very, very fresh. It really tastes like olive oil and butter, it's so yummy. Just smooth and buttery, that's how I would describe it. But the Spanish Arbequina ones are delicious, and they have a ton of other choices. Their large black Barese are the best that I've had in town.

Right?

Andrea in Minneapolis

 

Dear Andrea,

I like the way you think. Like a 1960s bachelor with a pad that's too good for the ladies who frequent it—you think you've found your true love, but you don't want to commit for fear that there's someone better. Good for you! Why should you commit to anything in a world of infinite capacity and countless unknown variables—there could be something better out there—why, there might be heights unfathomable.

Well, let me tell you. I have searched the heights for you—specifically Inver Grove Heights, Mendota Heights, Columbia Heights, and all points in between. I have navigated the highways and byways, hitting no fewer than 13 local specialty markets and gourmet grocery stores, and I can faithfully report that this town has one heck of a lot of olives in it. Mostly good ones, too. How good? Read on....

But first, let's define our terms. Olives. The doodads in the bowls. Native to the eastern end of the Mediterranean and now critical to every country, culture, and cuisine perched near said salty bowl. I'm not talking just Greece, Italy, and Spain, but also Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, Croatia, and so forth. What else? Olives are a fruit, a bitter fruit. In fact, in their natural state, olives are far too bitter to eat, which is why they are invariably brined, fermented, or treated with lye to make them palatable.

So, time for a quick lesson in olive chemistry! All olives, like most of the other fruits you know, start their lives green and unripe. Left to ripen on the tree, olives will eventually turn a pinkish color, then brown, light mauve, purple, then usually end up ripening to some kind of deep violet black. Olives can be, and are, picked at every stage of this ripening process. So, green olives are not yet ripe, and super-black olives tend to be very ripe. (Except when they're not. Mankind, god bless his busy heart, figured out how to turn green olives black by dyeing them with ferrous gluconate, an iron compound which, conveniently enough, also happens to be an effective iron supplement.)

Where were we? Oh yes. There are a few different ways to remove the natural bitterness from olives. One way? Simply soak them in a light brine for a month, or several months. You can speed up the process by "cracking" them (meaning smashing them till they split), scoring them with a knife, or pitting them, so that the brine penetrates the flesh more quickly. Another traditional way of removing olives' bitterness involves simply packing them with lots of salt, leaving them for a few months, and eventually rinsing off the salt and tossing them with a bit of olive oil—that's how those wrinkly, "oil-cured" olives evolve, though in truth it's really more of a salt cure. A tasty but expensive bitterness remedy is to allow the olives to ferment in wine—Greek Kalamata olives are traditionally wine-fermented for six months, which gives them that big, big flavor. Taking the opposite approach, the fastest way to remove the bitterness from olives is to soak them in a light lye solution for about a day, after which they can be quickly brined and packed.

Why should you care? Because now you have a very good rule of thumb with which to assess the quality and the value of the olives you encounter: Following the golden rule of food, anything that takes longer to make has more complicated flavors. The highest-quality olives tend to be those that take the longest to make—whole, tree-ripened, and/or lengthily brined olives tend to be your big-ticket, prestige olives.

Yes, there are big-ticket, prestige olives: I have seen olives in this city selling for more than $16 a pound—about the same price as steak. That said, are big-ticket, prestige olives the end of the story? No. In lots of Mediterranean cultures, olives are not something you have once in a while, they're something you have three or four times a day, with every meal, plus snacks. This is particularly true the closer you get to olive trees' native location, in places like Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran. With this in mind, I visited a few of the Twin Cities best Middle Eastern markets.

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