‘Come, come.’ I stared doubtfully across the table at the robust red headed woman with green eyes and round, determined features. Even with my precarious grasp of the Spanish language I understood her words, uttered midway between an injunction and a threat.
Eva reached out a long, suntanned arm and picked a small, purple-black orb from the plate and popped it in her mouth. ‘Come,’ she urged in a voice muffled by the mastication of olive flesh, echoing her mother’s threat, ‘son buenissssimas.’ The s in buenisimas seemed to go on and on and on.
I was 16 and newly arrived in Granada, in the heart of dusty Andalucia. I was to spend three weeks with a Spanish family, ostensibly to extend my cultural and linguistic education. In celebration of my arrival, or perhaps to break the ice with this odd American, mama and papa herded me along with their four teenager children to a tapas bar. We sat down, papa fired heavy southern Castillano to a waiter, and soon the table was laden with plates of shellfish, montaditos, and olives.
I had tried olives only once before at a young, impressionable age. Expecting something along the lines of a grape, I’d been disgusted and violently spat the offending object from my mouth, vowing never to be duped again.
But here I was, dazed, jet lagged, and overcome by a profound shyness impounded by a near total incomprehension of the language. I crumbled, politeness triumphing over aversion I reached for the smallest olive on the plate and took a tentative bite. Pungent, intensely aromatic and delicately fruity it flooded my senses. I took another, daring this time to go for a large, pump green specimen. This one was entirely different, dense and meaty with a bright, citrus tang. After a pause, so as not to seem greedy, I reached for a third; I was hooked. It was the beginning of an obsession.
Spain is the world’s most prolific producer of table olives. Generating over 500,000 tons in 2008, it far outstripped other large producers such as Turkey, Syria, and Morocco. Olives contain a bitter compound called oleuropein which makes them inedible when plucked from the tree. First they must be treated with an alkaline solution and then brined, fermenting and transforming the fruit’s sugars into lactic acid. The specifics of this practice vary greatly depending on the variety of olive, the region, and ripeness of the fruit when picked.
There are over 300 varieties—far too many to list here. This guide, however, covers the most common and popular varieties of table olives. From tiny, fruity Arbequinas to jumbo, meaty Gordals, Spain is home to a wonderful assortment of olives. Whether green or black, the olive variety and region has a great influence on the flavor of the final product.
We have a wide array of olives at The Spanish Table, from juicy Gordals and aromatic Arbequinas to smoky Empeltres from Aragón. Not limited to the Iberian Peninsula, we have some choice offerings from Morocco and Greece as well. Here is just a sampling of what we have:
- Arbequina olives
- Basque mix with peppers
- Black oil-cured olives
- Cuquillo olives
- Farga Aragon black olives
- Gordal or ‘queen’ olives
- Green manzanilla olives stuffed with anchovy, boqueron, tuna, manchego, piquillo, or lemon
- Herb-brined mixed olives
- Mantequilla or ‘butter’ olives, fresh
- Manzanilla olives
- Mixed olives packed on olive oil with pickles, caperberries, and red pepper
– Rachel Adams