We take buying a bottle of olives off the supermarket shelf as second nature, but it’s different when you pick and bottle your own.
I’ve just gathered in my first olive harvest. A bit late in the day, I admit, but friends had been telling me how much their trees had yielded, so I thought I’d better get my skates on and get mine in, although admittedly my lethargy meant that most of them were lying on the ground by now.
Those of my friends with plenty of trees and fruit had sent some to the cooperativa for making oil, and those with a few less trees were busy salting and preparing them to have with an aperitivo sometime next year. (A word of warning to those who have only come as close to an olive as taking it out of a jar. Never, ever, eat one straight from the tree. They are extremely purgative and will have you doubled up in pain as you try to hobble as fast as you can to the toilet. You’ll usually fail to get there.)
The simple truth is that by the time you soak the olives in brine, changing the water each day for the first month, then each week for the next couple of months, and only then can you add you preferred selection of herbs to create that perfect olive flavour, and for which you’ll have to wait another six months before you’ll actually be able to find out if you got the mix right, it’s easier to nip to the nearest Mercadona and bung a few herbs and spices into a jar of already prepared olives and only wait a few weeks. To do it the prescribed historic way will probably cost you more in salt than the best your local deli can offer.
Not to be outdone, I picked my own harvest – all twenty-six of them. Not twenty-six trees, twenty-six olives. Don’t laugh, it’s three more than my last crop! It’s easy to be scornful, but just think how gastronomically cultural I’ll seem when I open the jar about next June and nonchalantly offer them to my guests. “These are my own crop,” I’ll tell them. “And of course I picked them by hand and prepared them according to an ancient recipe.” (In fact, as my eldest son is getting married in August I may just keep them that little bit longer to reach absolute perfection, and present them as the piece de resistance of the wedding dinner.)
Having mentioned my small attempt at organic production to friends I’m getting inundated with advice. “I’ll give you my grandma’s recipe, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted,” says Silvia from Murcia, although Italian Giovanna swears that I should really use her grandma’s because the Italian’s have the best olives in the world, conveniently forgetting the scandal of a few years ago when it was discovered that some of the producers in Lucca, where they supposedly make the best and purest olive oil in the world, were blending small quantities of local oil with large quantities of Spanish olive oil and passing it off as their own, conveniently forgetting to mention it on the label.
I remember going into a café in America years ago and seeing a sign that read, ‘Cookies like Grandma used to make, $1. Cookies like Grandma thought she used to make, $2.’ Since then I’ve ignored all advice from everyone’s grandma and rumbled on my own sweet way.
And so it’s been with my precious little jar of olives. They’ve been through the preliminary daily salting and are now into the secondary, weekly salting stage. In just two weeks I’ll be dithering over the recipe. Do I add a couple of bay leaves and just a sprinkle of crushed chilli, or maybe go a bit eastern with a small handful of whole green cardamom? There again, how about whole black peppers, thyme and rosemary, for that rustic flavour?
It’s all too much! I think I’ll just nip round to Mercadona and buy a big jar of Gordal.