In these health-conscious times, when dark, smoky pickup bars have lost their allure, natural foods customers can turn, for their carousing, to the local olive bar. The great news for both natural foods stores and consumers is that olives are a healthy passion. So even if your customers don't meet the person of their dreams at your olive bar, they're likely to be wooed and won by at least one type of olive.
Olives are an ancient food and have long been associated with such noble virtues as peace and wisdom. The olive tree, Olea europaea, has been cultivated for at least 7,000 years and has played a historic role in most Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. Olive oil and table olives are cornerstones of cuisine in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Lebanon and Morocco. Today, olives are produced in virtually every temperate and hot region worldwide, including China, Angola, South America and California.
The fruit of the olive tree—which we know as olives—is classified as a drupe, which is any kind of fruit with fleshy pulp and pit. (Cherries, peaches, coconuts and avocados are among other fruits also classified as drupes.)
Olives, unlike other common drupes, are not usually edible straight off the tree. They contain a glucoside, oleuropein, which is present in their skin and makes freshly picked olives extremely bitter. There are a variety of curing processes that remove the acrid-tasting oleuropein, making table olives not only edible but rendering them virtually addictive.
The Bitter Cure
The curing process for olives is an intricate and skillful art form. Like the transformation of grapes into fine wine by the wine maker, the curing process is both art and tradition for the olive farmer—and often a closely guarded family secret.
Harvested olives are first cracked and then placed into an alkaline bath, which removes the oleuropein and bitterness. The alkaline solution penetrates the olive either partially or all the way to the pit, depending on the type of olive and the end result desired. This initial alkaline bath is discarded, and the olive is then cured by one of several techniques.
There are five basic methods for curing olives: Oil curing involves soaking the olives in oil for several months. The water curing method calls for soaking, rinsing and resoaking the olives in water for many months. Brine curing involves soaking the olives in brine for one to six months. Dry curing is a method in which the olives are packed in salt for one to several months. And with lye curing, the olives are soaked in a strong alkaline solution for a few days. Curing transforms olives into one of the world's oldest delicacies.
A Robust Nosh
After employing any of these curing methods, seasonings are added to the olives as the finishing touch. The curing method coupled with particular seasonings produces the characteristic flavor, texture and aroma that we associate with a favorite variety of olive. And the variety endures, because for centuries, olives have been produced on family farms, each with its own special formula—combining curing technique and spices to achieve unique flavors.
Today, there are hundreds of varieties available for olive connoisseurs, varying notably in size, texture and flavor. Olives can be categorized by loosely grouping them according to the region of the world in which they are grown. A majority of olives available in the United States are from Italy, Spain, France, Greece and California.
Olives also are differentiated by color—green or black. Green olives are harvested unripe, whereas black olives are left to ripen more fully on the tree. Color, however, is not a clear indicator of ripeness because some semiripe olives are treated with ferrous gluconate (a substance often used in iron supplements) to produce a black color.
For years, we've heard about the health benefits of olive oil, but few consider the nutritional value of table olives. Olives have long suffered from an undeserved reputation as a fattening food. In fact, although olives do have a higher fat content than most drupes, they are relatively low in calories. For example, one large California olive contains only seven calories, and 25 California olives have fewer calories than a 6-oz serving of low-fat yogurt.
Also, like olive oil, the fat contained in olives is high in monounsaturated fat, which most nutritional experts agree is the best choice for a heart-healthy diet. According to the California Olive Industry trade association, California ripe olives contain only 2 grams of fat in a 15-gram serving, the majority of fat coming from monounsaturates; and part of the remaining fats are essential fatty acids.
In addition to monounsaturated fat, olives also contain a high proportion of essential amino acids, are high in vitamins E and A, and are a good source of beta-carotene, calcium and magnesium. And given the intensity of flavor of most olives, it's difficult to eat large quantities at one sitting. So even though they are not a low-fat food, they can be a satisfying, healthy and relatively low-calorie snack.
Perhaps more problematic than fat is that olives can be high in salt. Although many people are not sensitive to salt, sodium can be a problem for those with high blood pressure, heart disease, a propensity to retain water or diabetes. To reduce the saltiness of olives, they may be simmered in water for five minutes and then drained. Less salty varieties, such as cerignolas or picholines, are available.
Belly Up To The Olive Bar
A great way to entice your customers to try something beyond the humdrum, pimento-stuffed cocktail olive is to offer them an olive bar. An olive bar is a section of the store that's filled with open containers of olives where your customers can first sample different varieties, then fill tubs for purchase.
You'll find that the offer to sample olives makes the olive bar one of the most popular destinations in your store. When your customers try the various olives, typically they'll find at least one that hooks them. Although there's some minimal cost in providing free olive samples, this is more than offset by the number of samplers who become olive addicts. And by charging a single price for any kind of olive, you can encourage your customers to mix and match varieties. Olive bars also provide a great opportunity for cross marketing, making a great pairing with cheeses, crackers, olive oils, pickles, capers, etc.
Olives are a food that naturally inspires passion and devotion. Transformed from a bitter, inedible fruit into a tangy, tasty, sophisticated and voluptuous food, olives have the power to evoke the romance of their various exotic lands of origin. With both health and culinary benefits to recommend them, they'll quickly turn your customers into regulars at your olive bar.
Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the co-authors of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002). Contact them at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 56, 60
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 56
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 56
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 60