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The Ritual of Curing Olives – Part One

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Five years ago, in November 2015, I reminisced in the article “The Magic of Extra Virgin Olive Oil” about how I grew up with the “liquid gem” in my Gramma’s kitchen. I mentioned how, many of us were blessed with the opportunity to spend time in our grandmothers’ kitchens, learning valuable skills that would later follow us into our own kitchens. Not only do I remember and relish her kitchen always smelling of garlic and olive oil, but I can still picture rows of Mason jars filled with cured green olives lined up on the counter. Those gorgeous jars packed with green gems were highly prized and would become our favorite Christmas gift.

Regretfully, I never watched my Gramma Filomeo cure the olives, but thankfully, her olive-curing legacy lives on through my mom. And surprisingly, I never participated in the curing ritual with my mom and have only a vague memory of watching her during the process when I was growing up. Each autumn, she would pick the green olives from our ancient Mission olive tree on the farm. I barely remember this part and was never interested enough to pay attention. Back then, I was only interested in tricking my uninitiated city cousins into trying the fruit straight off the tree, and to my devious delight, gleefully watching them spit the bitter fruit to the ground while calling me all manner of choice names.

I think it goes without saying that my wonderful mom will not be around forever and that it’s time to get serious about something that I have taken for granted all these years. Circumstances have moved me back to the farm where I was raised, and they have given me a new perspective on things that are important. It has also given me access to that giant, old olive tree and its abundance of fruit. And this year, my mom and I harvested them together and, finally, I watched and even participated in the olive curing ritual.

It always seemed like some formidable and arduous undertaking, what with having to use lye (a.k.a. drain cleaner) and waiting for what seemed like an eternity until the olives were ready to be consumed. I had little understanding of this task, which is more than likely why I have always avoided it. However, watching my mom sort the olives this year, tossing out the ones with minute specks that were sure to contain the olive fly larvae, and setting aside the smaller and ripening purple ones, was like a long-awaited adventure. “These must be done in separate batches,” she noted, “because they will take less time to cure.”

Although there are as many methods to curing olives as there are sage opinions, Mom and Gramma swore by using the lye method. Some prefer only a salt brine for natural fermentation, but the dreaded downside is that it does take forever. Why wait six months when you can have gratification in a matter of days? And, give them for Christmas gifts. Heck, they’ll be ready by Thanksgiving. Personally, I have not found any research that says one method is better, healthier or less dangerous than the other. But one does need to be very cautious when using the lye method, as we don’t want to end up in the ER with third-degree acid burns. 

“Did you bring gloves?” my mom asks, when I show up at her house for the curing lesson. 

Of course, I don’t have gloves. I plan to mostly watch. I know that sounds ridiculous, coming from a teacher, but as I said before, “formidable and arduous” is my frame of mind. 

When I arrive, the olives have already been in the lye solution for a good 12 hours and are now ready to be rinsed. My mom has five one-gallon jars full and another couple of stainless-steel pots that she has been stirring with a wooden spoon every hour or so. “No aluminum,” she warns. “It will react with the lye and poison the olives.” 

Let me add “treacherous and lethal” to the list of vocabulary words to describe this adventure. But there she is, dumping out the lye-laced water on the lawn next to the fence, where nothing will ever grow again. I watch her–87 years old, so frail, her small frame barely able to lift the large pots, but so determined–a master of this game. 

But I am not to stand by as a spectator, as my mom commands me to turn on the water hose, and shove it down into each jar. This part is actually fun, since I am a master with a garden hose. I fill the jars, swishing the olives around until the water runs clear. 

“The olives are now cured,” she announces. She is sure of this, because she has sacrificed an olive by slicing it open with a knife to check for ease of pit removal. The fresh water in the jars already begins to darken with the leaching of lye, which has done its job of breaking down the bonds of bitter oleuropein molecules. 

Now the water must be changed every few hours for two to four days, or until the water stays clear, and before the final step—preserving them in the salt brine. This is where I will make my escape. 

“There are two more buckets in the garage, if you want to take them home and do them,” my mom suggests. 

Hmmm, I really give this some serious thought. “Sure, why not,” I concede. “I guess I need to try on my own. Nothing like hands on, learning from one’s own experience.”

“Go ahead and take the rest of the lye,” she presses. 

“But what about next year? You’ll need it then,” I reply.

“No,” she states flatly. “I won’t be doing them again.”

I really don’t know what to say and so, uncharacteristically, remain silent.

Look for Part Two of The Ritual of Curing Olives in next month’s HERLIFE Magazine. For daily garden goodness, join me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter.