Make the most of your olives - By Paul McKay.jpg

Make the most of your olives – By Paul McKay

Before moving to Portugal, I never saw much point in olives. They were often salty, sometimes bitter and generally not worth the effort. Things were not helped when I served up a Greek salad containing both stoned and un-stoned olives. Martyn, lulled into a false sense of security by the first few without stones, chomped straight through one still with its stone. The next four hours were spent at the all-night dentist.

I have since been educated in the Algarve. Years of having countless little dishes of olives placed in front of me, while I wait an eternity for food, has had the effect of creating an olive addict.

There are a wide variety of olives available, from big fat green queen olives, to the tiny black olives that grow wild. All have their merits and it is simply a matter of taste as to which you prefer. A well planted, well watered olive tree will produce a good harvest of tasty olives, but just as often, a neglected, gnarled old tree in the middle of an abandoned farm can give an abundant harvest too.

Preparing olives

Olives ripen during autumn when they begin to fall from the tree. Our initial olive faux pas was to pick them, put them in salted water and think they would be ready to eat in a few weeks – wrong! We ended up with a bucket of putrid mouldy water and an elderly neighbour looking at us aghast, asking if we were insane. The following advice on olive preparation was gleaned from him and other neighbours who have been picking, storing and eating their own olives for longer than I have been alive. I have followed this procedure a number of times with great success.

1. Pick green olives when they turn from a shiny green colour to, well, olive green. Place a cloth over them and hammer with any old stone you see lying nearby.

2. Pick black olives when they turn from green to black and begin falling. Painstakingly cut a slice through to the stone of each one.

3. Place olives in a net and leave in running water (a spring) for about seven days. If this is not possible, put them in a bowl of fresh water, changing the water every three hours or so.

4. Mix one kilogram of salt with 20 litres of water. Add herbs and seasoning of your choice. Leave for four weeks before eating. Skim off any scum that forms on the surface of the water and try not to think about it.

5. To serve the olives, it is best to rinse in fresh water a few hours before, and then leave in a mixture of olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs of your choice.


Winter herbs

To have fresh herbs, such as basil, throughout the winter, you need to act now, while the plants are producing an abundance of leaves. Pick and finely chop the leaves, and add to an ice-cube tray. Cover with water and freeze. Once frozen, the cubes can be put into a labelled bag.

We have been doing this for a number of years, simply adding a couple of cubes towards the end of cooking. The flavour of the thawed basil in the middle of winter is far superior to that of dried herbs.

If you have any gardening nightmares or successes to share, e-mail me at [email protected]. Write Virtual Vegetables in the subject column, so that the message isn’t mistaken for spam and binned!