Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Olives

Although we harvested our olives about 3 weeks ago, it’s taken me a bit of a while to get around to writing about them. We only have 9 trees, 2 of which are so overshadowed by a neighbouring chestnut they barely merit a mention. We gave 6 of them a drastic pruning last Spring, then a hail storm during olive blossom time carried off much of the remaining potential crop, so we were anticipating little more than a kilo or two for eating. Perhaps subliminally I’d got to the point of thinking our harvest barely merited a mention, but that would be a mistake.

Pruning olive trees in early February

Pruning olive trees in early February

We ended up with a lot more than we anticipated. Two of the three unpruned trees provided about half of the harvest, but we were pleasantly surprised by the amount from the remainder. And also by the quality. Ripe and plump. Enough to keep us in table olives for the next year.

The same olive tree after harvesting in November

The same olive tree after harvesting in November

To start the curing process, we meticulously picked through the crop, discarding any with signs of worm infestation, and removed all stalks. The olives were then washed and divided equally between 2 lidded buckets. I spent a good couple of hours scouring the internet for various recipes for preserving them and, as usual, ended up with an amalgam of what appealed most which then got varied again in practice. Much as tried and tested recipes offer a reasonably foolproof way of doing things, there’s an equal appeal to making it up as I go along – “the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules” …

Salt cures vary widely: from packing the crop into pure sea salt (used around here quite a lot) to brine cures starting out with soaking in fresh water only and anything in between. Some cures use a weaker brine for long term storage than the initial rinses, some a stronger. There seems to be a lot of latitude, so I opted for the anything-in-between with a fair bit of make-it-up-as-we-go-along. The olives I’ve had cured in pure salt tend to be a bit shrivelled and I prefer mine plump and juicy. But with the olives being fully ripe, I didn’t want to risk losing them to bacterial decay by starting out soaking them in just water either.

Half of the harvest during a change of soaking solution

Half of the harvest during a change of soaking solution

We made a brine with 250g sea salt to 4 litres water and put the olives into this, weighting them down to keep them below the surface of the brine with a dinner plate. A common method I came across recommends a daily change of soak water for the first ten days, but we had a cold snap right after the harvest so I changed the water every 2 days instead, reasoning that any changes taking place would do so much more slowly in the near-freezing temperatures. The first 4 soakings were done at this brine concentration, and I then doubled the amount of salt (temperatures were starting to rise again and I wanted to speed up the glucoside-leaching process – it’s the glucoside oleuropein which makes fresh olives too bitter to be edible), but stuck to the 2-day cycle just because … Well, just because. After a further 4 cycles at 500g/4 litres, I’ve now doubled the concentration of salt again and will be leaving them a week this time. After that, I expect to drop the concentration back down to 500g/4 litres, but will see what feels right when I get there.

Salt in the soaking bucket ready to make the next brine solution

Salt in the soaking bucket ready to make the next brine solution

A taste test during today’s change was encouraging. Some bitterness still, but the taste and consistency behind that were excellent. Give them a few more weeks and they should be delicious.

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  1. What’s been accomplished in 8 weeks? Part 2 | Olives and Acorns

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