The first small green olives of this year’s crop are at markets stalls, supermarkets and fruit and veg shops. The olive tree, Olea europaea is its proper name, is an evergreen giving a vast variety of fruits which, like Joseph’s coat, are of many colours.
In Spain alone there are more than 70 varieties which differ in many ways: size, colour, taste and oil content. And not all of them are for the table. Many olives are grown specifically for extracting their oil and are not suitable for eating. But that still leaves a huge choice when buying olives for the table.
Some of Mallorca’s dark-skinned olives are of a black and blue colour and are known as moradas, a word that also means bruise. They are usually very big, very juicy and with a rich unique taste.
A favourite green variety are the bitter trencades, a word that means split. These olives are cracked open with a small stone before being cured in brine, a method that allows the salt solution to penetrate into the olives’ flesh so they are ready for eating sooner.
You’ll find several kinds of black olives, from the plump medium-sized juicy ones to the island’s favourite known as panssides — which are left to ripen so that the skins become wrinkled. The panssides word comes from pansa, the Mallorquín for raisin, another fruit with wrinkles.
You can also buy green olives that have had the pit removed. They are especially good for cooking with because the stone doesn’t get in the way, which is important for when doing some fish dishes and especially when the olives have to be sliced into little rings.
We can, of course, buy a kitchen gadget that removes the pits. The green olives now on sale have come straight from the tree and are totally unripe. They will remain inedible until given a simple brine cure. It is easy to cure your own olives and also most satisfying, rather like making your own bread.
It is also, however, a time-consuming project and few young Mallorcan housewives these days even give it a thought. We have an enormous variety of excellent green olives that are sold loose and in jars and for busy housewives it is so much easier to buy them than to do their own.
There’s another little problem about curing green olives: the process is a slow one and lasts two or three months, depending on the olives. It could hardly be otherwise: the strong brine solution and herbs take ages to get absorbed and to turn the olives into something that delights the palate.
Dealing with Majorca’s black panssides olives is another matter. The wrinkled panssides are the best black olive I know of — those who haven’t acquired a taste for olives are missing something very special.
Wrinkles on most fruits mean much the same as those on the human skin: a sign of old age, a drying out of essential goodness, a clear indication that the use-by date has passed. But that is not the case with panssides: the wrinkles enhance their beauty. Indeed, the more there are the better.
These black olives, which won’t be on sale until next month, are allowed to become overripe so that they lose some of their water content — a process that causes the wrinkles.
Unlike green olives, the panssides are not bitter — they can even be eaten as they come, without being treated in any way. But they are at their best when a little seasoning is added.
They have another advantage over green olives: the preparation process takes days instead of months — and if you follow these instructions you will get superb results every time.
Buy a kilo of untreated panssides at the Mercat d’Olivar, the Santa Catalina market or the open-air Plaza Pedro Garau market on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays. The best ones are those from Sóller.
Wash your kilo of panssides in a big bowl of water, discarding any leaves, twigs and other debris. Rinse well in a colander and leave to drain. Transfer the olives to a glass dish or bowl or to a greixonera, the Mallorcan earthenware cooking dish.
From this moment on, all cooks and housewives have their own special way of treating the olives. Most Majorcans add all or some of these ingredients: olive oil, paprika, salt, whole cloves of garlic, pepper and lemon juice. Some use a touch of vinegar instead of lemon juice, but I don’t recommend it.
The quantities of these ingredients depend entirely on personal taste. Too much paprika (pimentón dulce) isn’t a good idea — start with a level teaspoon for a kilo of olives and see how you like it.
And you don’t want to add too much lemon juice: it is inclined to have a bleaching effect and the olives may lose some of their intense blackness. If you especially want more lemon taste (most people find it attractive) add tiny pieces of lemon with the rind which also gives a splash of colour to the olives.
But don’t include the pips because of their bitter taste.
Go easy on the salt to begin with. You can always add more when the olives have had time to absorb flavours. This is the kind of dish in which the taste of the olive oil is all-important, so use virgen extra.
The olives immediately soak up some of the olive oil and after three or four days, when they will be ready for eating, you may have to add a little more.
When you have dressed the olives to your satisfaction by adding as much seasoning as suits your palate, cover them and leave them in the kitchen where they are visible. This is to remind you to stir them with a wooden spoon a couple of times a day.
The reason for this little chore is that the olives have been dressed, not cured. Unless they are well turned at least once a day, a kind of web-like film grows on them.
But if they are moved around daily this won’t happen. This is why you should buy only one kilo at a time. A bigger batch would be sitting around for longer and the olives would become stale.
The panssides are ready for eating as soon as they are dressed but most Mallorcans prefer to leave them in the dressing for three days or more before starting on them.
Always remove the olives with a clean wooden spoon. Don’t be tempted to pick one up with your fingers because the bacteria on your hands can easily cause contamination.
The panssides are a superb addition to any kind of salad but try using them as a garnish for other dishes. A few added to a plain fresh tomato sauce for pasta is worth trying. If you are having toasted cheese, stud the surface with panssides for an extra taste sensation.
Spanish housewives also use olives in cooked dishes, although not so often as you’d expect considering that olives have had such a special niche in the country’s gastronomy for such a long time.
You’ll come across them in some fish and meat dishes that make good use of their unique taste as well as their visual impact.
Black olives are useful for adding a new taste dimension to dishes in which tomatoes are used, especially when the main ingredient is white or of a light colour, such as slices of white fish, chicken, turkey or pork.
The white, red and black combination is always a winner.
A typical dish of this kind is atún con aceitunas negras in which pieces of fresh tuna are sautéed with onions and tomatoes, moistened with sherry, and then slowly cooked until the fish is done.
The first olive I ever tasted was so horrid I couldn’t even manage to swallow the first exploratory nibble. It was Italian, green, and I was 10. I was advised to have a nibble every time olives were on the table. I did so and I was quite quickly eating green and black and enjoying them very much.
When I went to Celler Sa Premsa, the day after arriving in Mallorca, and was trying my first bitter olives, the trencades, there was no question of taking a trial bite: I popped one into my mouth and started to chew. I found it so horrible I had to spit it into a paper napkin. But I remembered the advice I was given when I was 10, so I had a nibble of a trencada olive every time they were available. I soon became an incorrigible trencada fan and these olives and the panssides are my favourites.
Many British adults I know still dislike olives of every kind and if you are one of them you should have a tiny nibble as frequently as possible to see if you can acquire the taste. If you start with the panssides and the small Seville green olive, you’ll probably get to like them quite quickly.
Spanish olives are excellent and although Italy, Greece and Provence also have some superb varieties, the experts agree that Spanish olives top the bill.
Spain has some 300 million olive trees and they are an essential part of the country’s agricultural economy. Thousands of years ago the olive and its oil also played an important part in the economy of the whole Mediterranean coast and in the daily life of its inhabitants.
Although olive groves can be found throughout the Mediterranean, there are none in Egypt. The cultivation of olive trees failed in the time of Ramses III (1198-1176 BC) and he ordered that castor-oil be used for lighting lamps and for anointing.
Good olive oil, which Egypt had to import from Palestine, was kept exclusively for use in the kitchen, on the table, for making perfumes and for religious offerings.
The olive crop in ancient times was even more important than it is today. Apart from the use of olives and olive oil in the kitchen, the oil was also a source of light in temples and homes.
The ancient civilisations used olive oil to cure internal illnesses and external wounds and the methods they used had a sound scientific basis. Because of its medicinal properties, olive oil was used to anoint the bodies of new-born babies.
Then as now, there were different varieties of olive oil, depending on the quality of the fruit and the care with which it was pressed.
The oldest written documents on olive oil date from 2500 BC. They were written on clay tablets and stress the importance of olive oil in the economy of Crete.
Research on the origin of the cultivation of olive tree places it at approximately some 8,000 years ago. Those first olive groves were in what is now Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
Wild olive trees, however, have an even more ancient history and were found in the south of Spain, Italy, Greece, North Africa and other points along the Mediterranean coast.
Olives are frequently mentioned in Greek and Roman writings as well as in the Bible. Following the Flood, the olive leaf brought back by the dove showed Noah that the flood waters had receded.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were promised a land of “oil, olives and honey” with vineyards and olive trees “that they did not plant”.
That final statement is important because the olive tree grows slowly and can take 10 years or more before it starts to give good fruit. That these trees were already growing meant the Israelites could harvest an instant crop.
The signs are that this year’s crop in Mallorca will be a good one and the quality of the olives and their oil will be high.
You’ll find a good selection of green olives in most supermarkets but no more than a couple of the black ones. Mallorca’s panssides olives are difficult to find. Some supermarkets have jars of black olives which, according to the label, are panssides but they lack the characteristic wrinkles.
For authentic panssides go to the specialist outlets at the Mercat d’Olivar, the Santa Catalina market, the Plaza Pedro Garau market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and to the olives counter at the supermarket of El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas. You’ll also find genuine panssides at inland towns and villages.