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hether it’s bobbing about in a martini or getting on famously with mozzarella and tomatoes on a pizza, the olive is a social butterfly of the food world. Happy to mingle with all sorts of ingredients, the convivial little green and black fruit often used to go unnoticed, regarded as little more than a garnish. Thankfully, such thinking has now changed. The olive is a special food in its own right, with hundreds of varieties grown across the Mediterranean (and as far afield as Asia and the USA) and a history stretching back thousands of years. “People think an olive is an olive, but its world is actually really complex when you start to go deeper,” says David Dottorini, export manager for Rome-based olive company Ficacci. “Each variety has its own flavour, texture, shape and size, and different cultures make olives using different methods.” A self-confessed olive geek who likes to read up on their history at his local library, Dottorini says his favourite is a small black variety called Gaeta. Nicknamed the black pearl, the olive is grown in tiny quantities and is little known outside its native region of Lazio. “Lazio produces just 0.4 per cent of Italy’s total olives, so the Gaeta is a difficult olive to find,” Dottorini says. “We have to talk to the farmers, who might have just two or three hectares of trees. They won’t sell their olives to just anyone – they’re proud of their product, and only work with people they know and respect.” Resembling a small Kalamata, the Gaeta is picked by hand in March and has a fruity, wine-like flavour with a bitter finish. “It’s a strong olive; it certainly wouldn’t go with a martini,” he says. “I like it with a powerful goat’s cheese and a glass of red wine.” All olives start out green and darken as they ripen. When they’re picked and how they’re processed depends on the variety. As anyone who has made the mistake of eating an olive straight from the tree will know, the fruit in its raw state is incredibly bitter. To make them edible, they must go through a process of fermentation. For the Gaeta olives, a natural method is used that has barely changed for centuries. When the olives have turned a glorious deep purple on the tree, they’re harvested and placed in barrels of saltwater. Brine from last year’s production, containing natural yeasts and bacteria, is added to the mixture to kick-start the fermentation process in much the same way as a “mother dough” is used to make sourdough bread. The olives are then left to soften and mature for eight months. Ficacci’s giant Sicilian sweet green olives are produced using a slightly different method. The fruits are picked when they’ve barely had a chance to ripen and are soaked in an alkaline solution called lye before they’re fermented to remove the bitterness. The resulting olives are very different to Gaetas; they’re sweet, crunchy and quite beautiful with a glass of Prosecco. Another variety that’s perfect with an aperitivo is the Bella di Cerignola – a huge black olive from Puglia that’s almost the size of a small plum. Produced by specialist Di Lecce Nicola in the town of Margherita di Savoia, the olives have a pleasant bitterness that matches the tartness of a “spritz” – a classic Italian cocktail made with Prosecco and Aperol.



TOP, FROM LEFT Riedel Veritas Champagne glass £55 for set of two; Alessi Tonale mini plate £7.50 and mini cup £7.50, and Glass Family glass £5.50; ABOVE Olives being harvested

Puglia is the olive capital of Italy, with tens of millions of trees – some well over 100 years old – that hug the Adriatic coastline on the “heel” of the country. Giant green Sant Agostino olives, which have a distinct aniseed flavour, are among Di Lecce’s most popular, but there are dozens of others that also grow in the region. “In the north you have Cerignola and Sant Agostino, but in Bari you’ve got Leccino olives and in other areas they grow a type called Peranzana – every area of Puglia has different crops,” explains Elena Iagulli, Di Lecce’s export manager. “Puglia is a beautiful part of Italy; we’ve got art, music, different languages and wonderful food. You can have bread, wine and olives, and your day is done.” The irony is that although Italians are passionate about regional food and will defend their village’s local olive oil to the hilt, they are as guilty as the rest of us when it comes to taking table olives for granted. In fact, as Dottorini explains, most of the olives eaten by Italians are imported: “Italy is the biggest consumer of table olives in the world, but for years we’ve been buying them from Greece because most of our olives are used for oil.” Dottorini is determined to change all that, however, and he’s on a one-man mission to convert Italians to their native olives, taking his prized Gaetas with him wherever he goes. “I always take them to dinner parties, and when I go to see friends,” he says. “They’re starting to understand that not all olives are the same.” HMN Olives available from Food Halls, Ground Floor. Homewares available from Alessi and Cookshop, Second Floor Patrick McGuigan writes for Square Meal, ShortList and Restaurant

Olive-picking Getty Images


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