A few months ago a friend gave me a wonderful gift of about fifteen kilos of olives…. and not just any olives. Peter Taverna had picked them but was too busy to brine them – would I care to do the honours? You bet I would! When he arrived with a food grade 20L bucket and the olives, I was gobsmacked. The fruit were enormous, way bigger than the giant Greek kalamatas we occasionally see in shops. Most fruit measured 50-55 mm in length, with some even bigger.
The picture of some in my (large) hand gives you some idea:
Peter told me they these were Cerignola olives (pronounced cherry-NYOL-uh), and suggested I peel and fillet some of the largest ones before brining them. Without tough skin, the texture of filleted olives becomes completely different: wonderfully silky and rich.
I’ve never brined olives before, but a few preserving books and a google search suggested the basic principles. Peter has brined olives by simply washing them thoroughly and placing whole fruit in a 10% salt brine without any cutting or treatment. This means fruit take a very long time to cure (up to two years), and the flavour is strong and peppery. Alternative methods involve soaking the olives in several changes of fresh water before curing them in brine. The more changes of water, the sweeter and more mellow the flavour becomes. You can add chillies, garlic and herbs such as bay and thyme to the brining water.
I decided to fillet half of the olives, selecting the largest. One quarter I’d place straight into brine, the other quarter I’d soak in several changes of water before brining.
The other half I preserved whole. Of these, half went straight into brine, uncut, the other half were soaked, cut (or “cracked”) and then brined.
Peeling and filleting olives sounds laborious, but when they are as large as this the task is not as onerous as you might think.
The basic olive brining process:
1. Thoroughly wash unblemished fruit (picked from the tree, never the ground) in clean, cold sterilised water. Slit fruit longitudinally, taking care not to cut the pip. Or, this is the stage when I filleted my Cerignolas.
2. If soaking, place in a food grade bucket or container and cover with sterilised water for two days (small olives) to twenty days (large olives), pouring off the water and replacing with fresh daily. For stronger-tasting olives, soak for just a few days. I soaked mine for about 10 days – just taste an olive to check for bitterness. As long as they’re no longer mouth-puckering, they’ll be fine. Some recipes recommend a 5% brine rather than fresh water for this soaking process to further reduce any chance of dangerous fungi or bacteria.
3. Prepare a 10% salt brine (100g coarse non-iodised salt per litre of water) by heating in a large saucepan until salt completely dissolves. Allow brine to cool. Some recipes add vinegar to the brining mix, but I didn’t.
4. Put olives into sterilised containers or glass jars (I used ones with new metal lids, which was a mistake as, despite the plasticised inners, the rim edges rusted outside the jar, making them difficult to open –preserving jars with rubber seals and glass lids would have been better), adding a chilli, peeled garlic clove, thyme, and/or bayleaf. Tall, narrow plastic Tupperware containers are also suitable.
5. Pour over cooled brine, covering completely. I filled the jars to overflowing to exclude air (which is why my lids rusted); some curing instructions suggest adding a centimetre of olive oil to the top of the jar and I’ll do this next time. After filling the Tupperware containers I placed Ziploc bags, also filled with brine, on top to keep the olives submerged before sealing the containers. I placed a plate on the uncut olives in the food-grade bucket.
6. Place containers into a cool, dark place for about 3 months (some people place them into the refrigerator), after which olives are ready to use. If they are too salty, soak in fresh water in the refrigerator for a day before use. Always wash olives before eating them.
Alternatively, to keep olives longer without them becoming excessively salty, place olives into fresh jars with a fresh 8% brine in sterilised containers. Don’t worry if a little white mould appears on the surface of the brine – just remove it and wash olives. You can also transfer the brined olives to new sterilised container and pour over olive oil.
There should be no soft, slushy olives in your batches. Don’t eat them, nor any from jars where there is any other sign of spoilage – slime, froth, dark mould or excessive mould. Here you can find details about the safe preservation of olives. And here are some alternative delicious olive marinades and excellent handy tips.
And how did the olives work out? I’ve just tasted some brined, soaked fillets and they are DIVINE!