Cured olives were the reason I started this blog. Not any cured olives, but my grandmother’s cured olives in specific. Words cannot describe how they taste, so I won’t even try. But I will tell you this, if they are the reason I started this blog then they must be something. Or am I stating the obvious?
I finally got to learn her secret this month. I had been waiting impatiently for the first rain of the season so that the olives are ready for picking, but to no avail, real rain never came. It’s almost December now, and with only a drizzle in sight the olives were picked sans the required showers.
I don’t know where to begin my story, not because this recipe is so special, but because my grandmother is the best storyteller there is. I’m not just saying this because she is my grandmother; I’m saying this because her tales of pet bears, whirling dervishes, purple-eyed children and halls of hologram mirrors are difficult to compete with.
My grandmother’s story about when she started to cure olives began at a time when Jordan had rain and olives were picked in early September. The real story, however, was in how she makes the olives. I can’t say that I was expecting clinical step-by-step instructions, because there is nothing clinical nor step-by-step about the way my grandmother tells her stories, but I must confess that I had secretly hoped for something straightforward (it would have made the process of documenting this recipe so much easier!)
What I got was nothing near simple; even though the recipe is very easy it requires a significant investment: time. Her recipe started off with her recounting how she found the olive farmer she buys her olives from and continued in similar fashion, sealing the jar with her secret: fresh lemon tree leaves from her garden (and her garden only!) impart the slightest flavor to the olives, making their addition a requisite step to making any cured olives special.
I made the olives with her; I don’t know how many kilos we used, because there must have been about 50 jars lined up on her kitchen floor ready to be filled with mountains of bright green olives. She did not measure anything of course, a bit of this and a bit of that. When I asked her to measure things out, she said, “Just use your eyes like I do.” That obviously didn’t work. In the end, we compromised. Using her eye measurement techniques, she would pour each ingredient into a separate bowl so I could measure it, and we combined them after everything was measured and documented. Needless to say, her measurements were consistent with each batch we made. Incredible!
From bright green to olive green, the olives ripen in the brine and come out as gleaming little morsels with hints of oil on their surface. Bitter and meaty, once cured, each olive breaks up and falls off the pit like small tender pieces of juicy felt as soon as you bite into it.
For the purposes of this recipe, I have used a 2.5-liter glass jar. The ingredients were measured accordingly. However, this recipe can be scaled up or down, depending on how many jars of olives you want to make.
1.5 kg small green olives
2 lemons, cut into small wedges
3 medium green chili peppers, stems removed
1 lemon tree leaf (optional)
Salt-water solution (instructions below)
For the salt-water solution:
- 2 liters mineral water
- ¾ cups coarse sea salt
- 75 ml fresh lemon juice
- 2 eggs
- Olive crushing machine or mallet
- 1 large basin
- 1 large bowl
- 1 sterilized glass jar
Step 1: Soften the Olives
After buying the olives, you need to either run them through an olive crushing machine (found at most green grocers in the Middle East), or pound them with a mallet to soften them. You can also make small horizontal incisions into the olives after softening them with the mallet.
Step 2: Soak the Olives
- Soak the olives in a basin filled with cold water for 2 days (48 hours), changing the water every 12 hours. This step absorbs the bitterness out of the olives.
- After two days, sample one olive to make sure it is ready for curing. It should still taste a little bitter, but the bitterness will be bearable. If you feel that the olives are still a little too bitter, soak them for another day (24 hours), changing the water every twelve hours.
Step 3: Notes to read while the olives soak.
- The amount of solution you will need depends on how many jars of olives you want to make. Therefore, the salt to water ratio used above can be increased/ decreased depending on how many jars you’re going to make.
- The ratio of the salt-water solution varies depending on the quality of the salt and the sodium content of the water. The eggs are used to measure the saltiness of the water.
- Before using the eggs, make sure they are clean. You also need to test them to make sure they are good eggs. To test the eggs, just submerge them in a bowl of cold water; if they sink to the bottom, they are good. If for any reason the eggs float or stand upright (floating indicates that the eggs are rotten), replace the eggs.
Step 4: Make the solution…
- Pour the water in a bowl and place the eggs in the bowl. Gradually stir the salt into the water, one tablespoon at a time. Make sure all the salt dissolves.
- Continue adding salt until one of the eggs begins to float up to the surface (once you see a trace of the egg bobbing up near the surface), stop adding the salt.
- If for any reason the eggs do not float after adding all the salt, add some salt more until one of them floats.
- Once the water is salty, take the eggs out of the solution and stir in the lemon juice. At this point, your solution is ready.
Step 5: Cure the Olives!
- Start filling the jars with the olives, adding a few lemon wedges and one chili pepper every couple of layers. You can add more chili peppers if you would like spicier olives.
- Do not fill the jar completely; make sure there is a space of approximately 2 cm between the olives and the mouth of the jar.
- Next, slowly pour the salt solution into the jar, and fill it until the water just covers the olives.
- Finally, if you have access to fresh lemon tree leaves, place one on top of the olives and press the jar shut. Cure the olives for approximately 2 months.
- After a few days, open the jar and pour in about two tablespoons of olive oil to seal the water layer.
- Also, after two weeks, open the jar to make sure the water still covers the olives, if the water level has decreased, top up the jar with some salt-water solution.
Leen Al Zaben is a writer, foodie and photographer rolled into one. She is in the process of getting her masters in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. When she isn’t studying, Leen spends her time traveling, cooking and taking pictures of anything and everything edible. After dreaming about becoming a food and travel writer, she started her blog Culeenary.com which showcases food and travel stories from across the Middle East.