Olive You

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

Jerusalem Market
Jerusalem Market in Columbia Heights is a key source for the rarest foods dear to immigrants from the Middle East. On its shelves you'll find pickled wild cucumber, Bosnian coffee, and, of course, olives, olives, olives. In large refrigerated tubs in the deli counter, Jerusalem's offers five kinds of olives in bulk. I tried salty, intense, oil-cured Moroccan olives, perfect for cooking up in a spicy tagine; and intensely hot, slightly bitter, spiced green olives, good for eating out of hand or for jazzing up yourself, perhaps with some grated lemon zest and cinnamon? Both bulk olives cost $3.99 a pound—good stuff. Back on the shelves, Jerusalem's has the Twin Cities' largest variety of olives from the eastern Mediterranean: I counted olives from Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and more. If you want to know about olives from the original source, look no further. (Jerusalem Market; 4945 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights, 763.574.1986.)

Holy Land
You could look a little further down Central Avenue, though, especially if you're bargain-minded: Holy Land has the cheapest olives in the metro—those looking for the biggest bang for the buck are advised to seek out Holy Land's big four-kilo plastic jugs, which sell for as little at $15—what is that, 70 cents a pound? Of course, this kind of mega purchase makes a lot of sense for those for whom olives are indeed part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As befits a clientele that eats lots of olives, Holy Land offers lots of enticements, at great prices. When I visited for this story, the Central Avenue Holy Land had 14 bins of the finest olives the eastern part of the Mediterranean has to offer. Like what? Like Jordanian mixed olives for $3.99; the biggest grade of meaty Kalamata olives, jumbos, for $5.99 a pound; perky, cracked green olives covered with shutta, a fiery chili paste painted on as thick as jam, for $4.99; slightly grassy, almost licorice-touched cracked Lebanese olives for $2.99; and tons more. The Holy Land at the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street offers a similar selection. (Holy Land International; 2513 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis, 612.781.2627; www.holylandbrand.com.)

Straight from Greece:

Bill's Imported Foods has been a gourmet penny-pincher's ace in the hole for many years now—I know, because I shop there all the time. What can I say, I think a perfect no-cook supper involves French feta cheese, an herb salad ginned up from the boxes of produce that crowd Bills' floor, good olives, and fresh flatbread from the Falafel King next door. As a Bill's lifer I had some fears about exploring all the olives in the Twin Cities—what if Bill's didn't hold up? I'm pleased to report that in this case, scrutiny only made the heart grow fonder: Bill's 18 bulk olive offerings emerged not merely unscathed, but more impressive than ever. Why? The olives are as good as any of the gourmet groceries', at half or a third the price.

Olive bounty: The impressive array of Olea europaea at Surdyk's
Daniel Corrigan
Olive bounty: The impressive array of Olea europaea at Surdyk's

Their $5.99-a-pound jumbo Kalamata were rich, meaty, plump, and in gorgeous condition. Did you know that there's a booming business in fake Kalamata olives? You can tell the real ones because they have a dimple at one end, and come to a graceful point at the other. Bill's has the real deal—they're so big, deep, and meaty they practically taste like a venison steak. Their other top-of-the-line olive, a $5.99-a-pound spicy olive mix, combines fat green olives, oversized ripe mauve and black ones, and lots of hot pickled red and green peppers in a way that marries all the weight, depth, and meat of great olives with the head-clearing kick of fire: That's the stuff! Bill's offers a number of cocktail-party conversation starters too, like egg-sized green colossus olives ($2.99), a tart mouthful and a half; and green olives stuffed with orange peel ($4.99), which taste floral, and, to me, perhaps indefensibly, like a martini without alcohol. If you're an old-school Bill's shopper, rejoice in the knowledge that you're getting some of the best olives in town, at much lower prices than you'll pay anywhere else. If you've never been...oh, drat. Now I'm in the same boat with Andrea. What if you all order all the olives, and leave none for me? Oh well. Be nice! (Bill's Imported Foods, 721 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.827.2831.)

The Missing:

Speaking of being nice, you'll notice that I visited 13 spots for this story but am only writing about 10—so where are the missing three? Eh. Let's not speak ill of the inadequate. Not this week, anyway. This week, I learned that all unspectacular olive bars are unspectacular in the same way: They don't have enough turnover to keep the olives fresh, and so their olives become stale, bitter, and uninspiring. Fresh may be an odd thing to search out in products that by default can't be eaten until they're pickled, fermented, or otherwise preserved—but in fact, fresh, or at least freshly opened, is crucial.

Grocery Stores:

So, what about the grocery-store olive bars? I obviously couldn't get to every olive bar in the metro, but I did get to a representative sample from all the local biggies: Kowalski's, Lunds, Whole Foods, and a co-op. I found that the overall quality of all these olives was really high—and the prices were, too. At the Calhoun Village Whole Foods, for instance, I counted 23 sorts of olives on offer (for $9.99 a pound) in the giant round station that dominates a good chunk of floor space betwixt the meat and cheese departments. Most olives I tasted were very good: Big black and green Cerignola were delicious—these are olives from southern Italy picked at the same stage of firm, the green unripe, lye-cured, and brined; the black ones simply treated with that ferrous gluconate, which makes them taste like good old California canned black olives, in a purer, richer, less metallic guise. The hot Tunisian olives at Whole Foods were the only Tunisian olives I found in town. Here they're dressed with fennel, sweet curry, shredded yellow bell peppers, and red chili flakes, and are lively and zingy. They also have what has to be the strangest olive in the Twin Cities: They call it "Kritamo," and it's green olives served in a pile with seaweed, or as they call it, sea fennel, and the combination tastes of anise, rosemary, and the ocean—it's one of those tastes that you first think: "Weird!" and by the fourth olive you think: "Fantastic! Gotta get more of these seaweed olives."

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