Olives come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors, which depend on how they are cured and when they are picked. While most consumers are familiar with canned black Mission olives and the commonly pimento stuffed green Manzanilla olive, there are many more flavors and textures to explore. They are suitable for a wide variety of culinary applications: inclusion in sauces for pizzas and pastas, ground into a tapenade, or eaten plain with bread and cheese, a traditional Greek meal.
Because the trees are native to the Mediterranean, the vast majority of unique preparations for olives are Mediterranean in nature. Essentially, they break down into two types: green, which are picked while they are young for a more dense, aggressive flavor, and black, which are picked when they are more mature. Olives also must be cured before being eaten, and can be dry cured, oil cured, salt cured, brined, water cured, or treated with lye before brining.
Common varieties of black olive include the classic Greek brine cured Kalamata, which has a deep purple color and a fruity flavor. Some consumers are also familiar with Moroccan salt/oil cured olives, which have a wrinkly exterior and a very tart, salty flavor. Another salt cured type is the Nyons olive, from France. In addition, the French also make Nicoise olives, which are small and extremely tart. They play a crucial role in Salade Nicoise, a traditional French food.
More unusual types include the Spanish sherry cured Empeltre, along with Lugano olives, a salt cured variety from Italy. Some are cured and packed with herbs, such as the Toscanelle. Italians also make Cerignola olives, which are sweet and come in both green and black incarnations.
While green olives are commonly used for martini garnish, they also have their place in other dishes or on the table as hors d'oeuvre. In addition to the Manzanilla, many consumers enjoy Sicilian olives, which are cured in brine and herbs, and frequently stuffed with other pickled vegetables. The green equivalent to the Kalamata is the Naphlion, a brine cured Greek olive. French cuisine uses Picholine, which are cured in salt brine, resulting in a rich salty flavor.
With the wide variety available, there are a number of flavors to experience for cooks and consumers of all levels of interest. Most major markets have olive bars with a wide assortment of brine and oil cured options available, packed by weight so that you can pick out an assortment of the delicious fruit to experiment with. Try them on salads and pizzas as well as with bread, cheese, and an assortment of other salty or pickled snacks like roasted red bell peppers, artichoke hearts, and sundried tomatoes for a true Mediterranean spread.