Confessions of an Olive Lover

Olives. You either love them or you hate them. There’s no middle ground. You can, however, make the leap from wrinkling your nose at olives to salivating like Pavlov’s dog at the very thought of them. I know because it happened to me.

I can remember just when and where I made the leap. I was at an open-air market in the city of Groningen, the Netherlands, with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Peter. Strolling through outdoor markets was a regular pastime for Peter and me, a fabulous way to get some exercise and shop at the same time. We always left carrying bags that bulged with vegetables, produce, breads, and eventually a variety of olives.

Shoppers are often invited to taste tempting samples from the market’s bounteous displays. Which brings me to the olive stand in Groningen. It was a small stand, a little off to the side. The short, stocky vendor looked Mediterranean, his white apron in sharp contrast to the baggy dark clothes he wore. His deeply lined face, leathery brown, was framed by bushy eyebrows; thick, unruly, salt-and-pepper hair; and on top a nondescript black cap.

Peter took one look at the white buckets full of shiny plump olives, all different colors and sizes, and said, “Let’s get some olives.”

I wrinkled my nose and said, “Ewww. I don’t like olives.” This shopping expedition occurred fairly early in our courtship, and we were still learning each other’s likes and dislikes. Now Peter knew I was not fond of olives.

He couldn’t believe it. “Not like olives? How is that possible? You must try one. Here—there are many different kinds.” Peter pointed to one bucket, and the man solemnly swirled a slotted spoon through inky black liquid and came up with two large purplish-black olives for us to sample.

“Kalamata,” the man said in a thick accent. “From Greece.”

Peter took his olive quickly and plunked it in his mouth, saying, “Watch out, Peg. They have pits.” He chewed his olive happily, then looked at me.

I took my olive reluctantly and placed it in my mouth. Immediately, I sensed this was unlike any olive I’d ever eaten before. Canned California olives were about all I’d ever tried, and they never impressed me much: mealy, bland, and flavorless. In a word: blah!

But not this olive. It swelled with flavor. Its tangy, salty, earthy juices exploded in my mouth, and I chewed it greedily. Just one taste of the exciting flavors that burst from this shiny orb, and I was forever hooked. To this day, kalamata olives remain my favorite, although I have sampled untold varieties in the many years since the fateful day I became an olive lover.

The olive, a fruit, grows on some of the prettiest trees you’ve ever seen. The silvery green leaves and gnarly trunks of olive trees are perfect for picnicking under, especially when late afternoon light filters through the branches, casting a warm friendly glow on anyone lucky enough to be in the vicinity. Olives come in many different varieties and can be eaten either green or ripe. In the U.S., most are grown in California with a few groves in Arizona.

In Europe, all the countries that border the Mediterranean grow fine olives: France, Spain, Italy, and, of course, Greece. Most olive aficionados will agree that Greek olives reign supreme. In fact, once while traveling in Italy, Peter and I chatted with a shopkeeper who admitted that Italy exports most of its native olives and imports Greek olives to eat. Still, I think the olives of each Mediterranean country have their own special merit. I remember savoring green olives from Spain soaked in a Gazpacho marinade. I also delighted in the small but robust olives of the French Provence, flavored with the unique blend of herbs that the region is famous for.  

On a mountain near Delphi in Greece, I recall overlooking the country’s largest olive grove owned by Krinos. Silvery green olive trees blanketed the valley as far as the eye could see. Earlier on our trip we had visited the sleepy town of Kalamata, which sits by the water on the southern side of the Peloponnese. We enjoyed lunch in a quiet harborside restaurant, where the April sun warmed us as we dined outside on a terrace. Of course, we ordered olives as an appetizer. I’ll never forget how they were served: in a small white bowl drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with dried oregano. I’m salivating just thinking about them! (The rest of our lunch was equally delicious: fried calamari, Greek country salad, and a wonderful fried cheese called saganaki.)

I’d go back to Greece today if I could. The next best thing, however, is a taste of Greece available inside a nearby olive jar. Try these recipes for other ways to indulge your olive fetish.

Tomato Relish
Make this about 1-2 hours before serving.
Makes approx. 1 1/2 cups
1 summer-ripe tomato, finely diced
1/2 sweet onion, finely diced
1 piece of raw ginger, peeled and very finely diced (to make 2 tsp.)
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely diced
1 pickle (I prefer dill, but you can also use sweet), finely diced (to make 1 tablespoon)
6-7 pitted, green olives, diced finely
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley, basil, oregano, whatever you like), snipped

Place the ingredients in a small, deep ceramic bowl. Liberally douse with Italian salad dressing or oil and vinegar. Let stand for 1-2 hours before serving. Spoon over a simple green salad of cucumbers and fresh romaine, green or redleaf lettuce, or buttercrunch (a.k.a. Boston) lettuce.

Olive Pasta
This recipe can be adapted to take advantage of fresh ingredients at hand. I’ve used asparagus, sugar snaps, or snow peas, all with pleasing results. Marinated artichoke hearts (drained) right out of the jar also work well with this basic recipe. The only requirement is that you use good quality olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan or Romano (not the stuff in the green can), and lots of fresh garlic.
Makes 4 servings.
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
3-4 lg. pieces of dried tomatoes, softened in hot water and coarsely chopped (to make 3-4 tablespoons)
10-15 kalamata olives, pitted and cut in 2-3 pieces
1 cup of your choice of seasonal vegetables, coarsely chopped and cooked al dente
Olive oil
Grated Parmesan or Romano
Freshly ground pepper

Put your favorite pasta on to boil. When the pasta is halfway done, sauté the garlic slices and onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for 3-4 minutes. Add dried tomatoes, olives, and vegetables. Stir. Drain pasta and combine with the olive mixture. Toss gently, adding another tablespoon or so of olive oil. Serve on heated plates with generous amounts of grated cheese and black pepper. Don’t forget warm, crusty bread and butter.

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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