In my education of all things Greek, this year (so far) has been the year of the olive. The Greek word for olives is elies, ελιές, pronounced el-yes and they are without question the essential element of the Greek diet. Olives can make the simplest mezede and every meal is accompanied by a plate of beautiful glossy olives on the table.
My father in law has over 70 years of experience growing olives and for the sixty years of their married life, my mother in law has preserved the autumn crop. Their home preserved olives really are a team effort. Living in a sunny corner of Sydney's inner west has not hampered my in law's passion for home preserved olives. So, a few weeks ago, Mr K and I were part of the small team of harvesters in the Autumn sunshine. As we sat picking the olives from the branches, Dad (Ba in Greek) recalled stories of how he had harvested olives with his family in a small village in the Peloponnese during the 1930s.
Ba tells me that the best, most tastiest, olives are the tiniest. They are packed with aromatic, peppery green oil and can be found in Crete, Messinia and Zakythnos - my mother in law's home island. The olives from these parts of Greece are mainly used for oil and small quantities are harvested for the table by families for their own used. They never reach the market in Australia. For the truest taste of Greek olives Ba says you have to make your own. Here is how Ma and Ba make their olives...
Traditional Preserved Green Olives (παραδοσιακές ελιές)
1kg unripe, green olives
1 litre of water
1 lemon, sliced (or you can use pieces of orange)
5-6 bay leaves
1 tsp of rigani, fennel fronds, thyme or rosemary
t tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
Gathering the olives: Gather the olives when some are just starting to blacken but the majority are still green. Cut the branches down or shake them into a cloth or net spread under the tree. After picking, place them in a bowl filled with water and clean them of any dirt, leaves or twigs, Make a selection of the best olives, those without to many blemishes or broken skin.
Soak the olives: With a sharp knife slash each of the olives lengthwise, taking care not to cut the pit. Place the olives in a large bucket and cover with twice in water volume. Change the water every day for 8-10 days. Then check the bitterness of the olive, it should be mellow with a subtle bitterness. If bitterness is still strong continue the process and re-test.
Make the brine: Boil water in which you have added salt and the flavourings. Stir until the salt is dissolved completely. Let it cool completely.
Ma's tip for the brine: to check the brine is salty enough, carefully add a washed whole egg. If it floats and the part of the shell rising above the surface of the water is about the size of a thumb nail - the salt content is just right.
Sterilise the jar: wash the jar in which you will keep the olives (including the lid) with warm soapy water. Rinse with fresh water and place the glass jar on a tray and place in an oven at 120°C for 10 minutes until the jar is completely dry. Wait for jar to cool before handling it or use tongs when taking it out of the oven.
Completion: Place the olives in the jar and cover with the cold salty broth. Cover the surface with extra virgin olive oil and seal the jar.
Storing: store in a cool dark place and consume within 2-4 months, otherwise the olives loose the colour and spoil.
And...... Καλή επιτυχία (good luck!!)