The end of the summer and the autumn is the time for olive picking in the Mediterranean. And we Spaniards love our olives. Spain is not only the biggest producer of olive oil in the world, but table olives are eaten as a “tapa” or accompaniment all over the place. I would say that maybe a handful of olives served on a tiny “barqueta” (a boat-shaped dish) is the most ubiquitous tapa of all.
It all begun with the olive trees that spread into Europe from Africa in Prehistoric times. The Phoenicians are said to have taken olive trees to the Greek islands and Hellenic Peninsula. From there they were introduced in Italy and then into the whole Mediterranean area by the Roman Empire. The Romans brought olive trees to the Iberian Peninsula too, where they were subsequently adopted by the Arabs. The olive trees adapted well to the harsh weather conditions in the territory, such as drought and extreme temperatures, but olive trees found there what they needed most: above all they thrive in plenty of sunlight.
Nowadays there are around 300 varieties of olives in Spain, originating from a single type that adapted through time to different soil and climate conditions; some of the present varieties being the result of grafting too. Certain varieties of olives have always been used for oil extraction while others always for processing as table olives. Similarly to what happens with wine-making and table grape varieties, the table olive varieties need to be of reasonable size and fleshy.
Although olives belong to the same fruit family as plums and peaches, for instance, they are very bitter when raw and cannot be eaten picked straight from the olive tree. All olives need to be treated in order to make them edible and also to preserve them. Olives destined for the table are mostly picked unripe. Then green olives are left to soak in a lye solution (yes, sodium hydroxide) for several days, which neutralizes their bitter taste. Subsequently they are thoroughly washed and submerged in brine, to induce lactic fermentation, or in a marinade. The length of the fermentation or curing process depends on the olive variety and requires a minimum of two to three months.
Maybe the most popular varieties for table olives are Manzanilla de Sevilla, a pretty oval and bright green olive, and the famous Gordal, a variety larger than most, with the size of a small walnut. Other varieties have beautiful names such as Hojiblanca from Andalusia, Manzanilla Cacereña from Extremadura and Empeltre from Aragón.
A large proportion of the table olives consumed in Spain are stoned olives stuffed with a variety of fillings: anchovies, red pepper or almonds to name a few. Do you know what a Gilda is? Well, it is a famous tapa made by skewering an olive, an anchovy and a “guindilla” (chili pepper) on a stick, funnily named after the American movie character of the same name. There are plenty of other tapas that include olives too, from the delicious “ensaladilla rusa” (a hugely popular potato salad with mayonnaise), through all kinds of tomato and lettuce salads or anchovies in vinegar to canapés.
Miriam García is the GO! Travel expert on Spanish cuisine. She can also be found on her blog The Winter Guest.