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.

 

Olives of the Mid-East:

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.

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."

The olive bar at the Lakewinds Natural Foods in Minnetonka is a pretty, stainless-steel and tile-ringed affair, and the olives in it run $8.29 a pound. They had green olives stuffed with all the goodies—sun-dried tomatoes, feta, jalapeños, almond, garlic, the works. They also had all the prestige olives: The Cerignolas, French Nicoise, and so forth. The Kowalski's on Lyndale in south Minneapolis had a dozen sorts of olives, at $8.99 a pound, including some very interesting fat, purple wine-cured olives from Chile, and good French Picholine—a green, fresh, crisp olive with a buttery finish. The Uptown Lunds had 14 sorts of olives when I visited, at $8.49 a pound, including, Andrea, your prized Lucques. Were they the same as your prized Surdyk's Lucques? No. They were a little wrinkled, a little bit more bitter—but I don't know that anyone besides a food critic doing a side-by-side comparison would notice. (Lakewinds Natural Foods, www.lakewinds.com; Whole Foods, www.wholefoodsmarket.com; Lunds, www.lundsandbyerlys.com; Kowalski's, www.kowalskis.com)

Speaking of food critics doing side-by-side comparisons, visiting all of these olive bars showed me a few things I never would have realized otherwise: One, we have a lot more olive retailers than olive distributors, and you find a lot of the same things in a lot of very different places. (I saw one identical "five olive blend" under various names at ten stores.) Two, the grocery-store olive bars are priced so that the store breaks even if you buy the most expensive olive they have on hand—the Nicoise or Lucques, say, and they just make a killing if you buy the cheaper olives, something cracked, little, and green smothered in spice and peppers, for instance.

I also did a little reading on the history and logic behind supermarket olive bars, and learned that the main profit-driver behind these things is Americans' collective inability to correlate our eyes with our stomachs: We always buy more than we need when we're left alone with a boundless buffet, big containers, and a ladle. This leads to a very strange, counterintuitive place: You actually stand a good chance of saving money by shopping at the super-gourmet stores (see below), because at those places a clerk controls your access to the olives, and when he or she shows you a tiny container as well as a medium sized one and a giant one, you stand a good chance of picking the small one. Compound that with the way olives are priced at supermarket olive bars, and you start to see the commercial genius of the things. Does this mean that supermarket olive bars aren't worth it? Heck no—they're fantastic. They're also more expensive than olives bought at either specialty ethnic markets or high-style gourmet boutiques.

The Big Three:

Truth be told, I've gotten a little shy of these "What's the best X, Y, or Z?" quests lately, because the answer too often is: Surdyk's, Buon Giorno, or Broder's. But the truth is the truth, and I can't do anything about it: Some of the best olives in the metro come from our three local specialty-food gems.

Broder's
This Italian specialty food market, sister to Broder's Pasta Bar in south Minneapolis, had 11 olives, mostly Italian, on offer when I visited. I had way too many green olives stuffed with things on this olive-bar quest, but Broder's had two that actually could stand as hors d'oeuvres on their own. One was an oversized green olive stuffed with a tangy, tongue-tingling provolone cheese ($14.50 a pound); another was a similarly giant green olive packed with smoky sun-dried tomato ($15.50 a pound). I lost patience with overused sun-dried tomatoes a few years ago, but in this guise the result tastes like some exotic Spanish tapas made with ham, which is a hard thing for an olive to pull off.

Massive Sicilian cracked olives were almost liver-like in their profound intensity and weight. Some vegetarian chef needs to discover these things and turn them into the new portobello mushroom burger. While we're talking olives, I may as well mention that Broder's has the best tapenades in town—they make a green olive paste with red and yellow peppers and anchovies, and a black one with capers and garlic. Each is priced at $15.50 a pound, which only comes out to a few dollars for a fist-sized scoop, and is so profoundly tasty that you could make a meal of them. For the last few years it's seemed like every penny-pinching Italian restaurant has its own merely salty, straight from the jar tapenade served on crostini; I forgot how good the real stuff could be. (Broder's Cucina Italiana, 2308 W. 50th St., Minneapolis, 612.925.3113; www.broders.com)

Buon Giorno
I've been to Buon Giorno two dozen times since it opened, but since I was going there this time from Mendota Heights, I got lost, and ended up in Eagan. I got off the highway to turn around, and, waiting for a traffic light, looked at a line of cars similarly paused at a turn arrow. Every single driver was reading or otherwise examining a cell phone, but right over their heads a red-tailed hawk had hold of some small critter and was struggling mightily in the crosswinds not to drop it on a truck in which a man read his phone. I watched all this, and then on the radio they announced Anna Nicole Smith was dead.

Does any of this mean anything? Probably not, but one runs out of new things to say about this gleaming, marble-accented Italian specialty grocer in Lilydale, and by the time I got myself all sorted out I had hold of the best Kalamata olive I've ever had. It was one of 17 on offer at Buon Giorno, specifically a single-estate Kalamata from the Greek prefecture of Messinia ($10.99 a pound), and it tasted sweet, floral, and big, like a big tea-rose bloom made of olive. I tried a number of other fantastic olives from Buon Giorno, including fat green and black Cerignolas of remarkable purity and lightness ($14.99), and the best pitted black olives I've ever encountered: They were Sicilian Serecene olives tossed with oil and herbs, including dried rosemary, and they had a rich, salty taste and a finish like applewood-smoked bacon. I was telling a new friend about the olives at Buon Giorno while I was writing this story, and she rushed out to buy a bunch of Buon Giorno olives for her sweetheart as a Valentine gift. She reported they were a big hit. Do you, too, rank olives as equal to roses and chocolate bonbons? If so, Buon Giorno. (Buon Giorno Italia, 981 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Lilydale, 651.905.1081; www.buongiornoitalia.biz)

Surdyk's:
And so, dear Andrea, we have reached the moment of truth. How does your beloved Surdyk's stack up? Actually, very, very well. On my visit, Surdyk's was selling 19 olives from pretty crockery jars, and everything I tasted was marvelous. Surdyk's certainly has the best French olives in the area, bar none—I counted eight different French varieties when I stopped in. The Nicoise ($8.39) were wee, oaky, wine-echoing, smoky-scented beauties. The French cocktail Bernier ($7.99) bore the tart imprint of sea winds on an anise and tarragon meadow. Your beloved Lucques ($9.99) were sweet and pure—Lucques in their best state are described as the vanilla ice-cream olive, for they have such a rich, light, sunlight-and-daffodil personality. These were indeed in great condition, and were in fact better than the much pricier Lucques on offer at Buon Giorno, which cost $16.29. I'm guessing the quality difference might turn entirely on you, Andrea, for you might yourself eat enough of the things to keep turnover high and the olives of freshest possible quality. (Surdyk's Cheese Shop; 303 E. Hennepin Ave. Minneapolis; 612.379.3232; www.surdyks.com) Which brings us to the bad news.

Andrea: There are other great olive bars in the Twin Cities, but none better than your precious Surdyk's. In the great scheme of things, in a world of many great olives in many fine places, the issue becomes not who has the best olives, but who has the best olives for you. Andrea? It's time to buy the ring.

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