Green Elvas olives

Watching little old ladies in nylon wrap-around housecoats performing acrobatic feats has been the highlight of the olive harvest for me. Every year, around the end of October, the ladders and buckets come out, sheets or nets are spread on the ground and whole families muck in to pick ripened olives from gnarly trees.

Sadly, if the trees around our house are anything to go by, it’ll be a poor crop this year.

Olive grove and Quinta de Noval, Douro
Olive grove and Quinta de Noval, Douro

Last autumn it was a very different story; we were so impressed by the amount of olives weighing down the branches of our own olive tree that we actually picked and processed them. Yes, that’s right, processed them.

Before moving to Portugal, I had no idea that you can’t just eat olives straight from the tree but freshly-picked ones are incredibly bitter and need to be cured first to make them edible. So that’s what we did.

Or at least that’s what we tried to do.

Freshly picked olives
Freshly picked olives

Curing olives. Or rather how not to cure olives

We found a couple of methods on the internet, picked one that involved soaking them in a bucket of salty water for a few weeks and set about cleaning and sorting our bumper crop, chattering excitedly about our year’s supply of home grown olives. I even told my parents to expect a jar of Moura Mortian olives for Christmas.

Despite our initial optimism and religious stirring and water-changing, two factors rendered our efforts useless. To begin with, Mike had been less than scrupulous about checking for worm holes. For me, this was a very big deal; the anticipated joy of biting into an olive that we had personally picked, cured and jarred was replaced by the fear of biting into dead worms.

I did what I could to rectify the situation, inspecting the olives with every stir and tossing out any with obvious holes in but I remained wary, my enthusiasm severely dampened. Mike wasn’t so bothered about potential worms and just thought I was being overly picky.

The project killer for him turned out to be the salt. We’d followed the recipe to the letter but the sea salt we were using must have been industrial strength because instead of gradually removing the bitter taste of freshly-picked olives, each time I tasted them, they were more revolting than ever.

By the time we realised what the problem was, nothing could be done to salvage our first, and possibly last olive crop. We reluctantly threw them out, making a mental note to use different salt in future. And to check more carefully for worm holes and defects.

Portuguese olives produced by professionals are much tastier!

multicoloured Portuguese olives and a basket of bread
Olives come in a range of colours

There are plenty of Portuguese olive producers who do a far better job of curing them than we did and olives are readily available in all supermarkets. You can buy them tinned, in jars or in plastic tubs, or scoop them out of brine-filled vats in the fruit and veg section.

I prefer black olives to green ones; they tend to be less bitter, having either matured on the tree for longer or been processed differently to give them their colour. In the Alentejo town of Elvas, the method of curing produces bright green olives.

I tend to like the ones that have a few herbs floating around in the brine but you’ll have to try them for yourself to decide your favourites.

In Portuguese restaurants, olives are generally brought to the table without you even having to ask, but you do have to pay for them.

They’re usually very tasty, although the standard varies from restaurant to restaurant. Some places marinate them in garlic, herbs and oil, others serve them plain. Once, we even had sweet olives, which were unexpectedly delicious.

I never used to like olives before moving to Portugal but they’re just one of the many Portuguese foods I’ve learned to love. Maybe next year, we’ll have enough on our tree to have another crack at curing our own.

Update: That was our one and only attempt at harvesting and curing olives. The yield the following year was poor and the tree perished in the October 2017 fires so we are quite happy to buy the fruits of other people’s labour. 

This post is part of my Personal A to Z of Portugal


  1. I opted for a much easier curation method : Put (fine) seasalt on the olives. Stir. Drain every few days, refresh salt 2-3x and presto after 2 weeks we had a-m-a-z-i-n-g olives (Black and purples). They were small, but tasted phenomenal, Easily the best olives I’ve ever tried. I guess I like the Greek method more than the Spains/Portugese/Italian one – the pure salt makes the olives tastier, wrinklier and more fatty.

  2. My wife is Portuguese and I want to suprise her with some olives from Portugal. Any suggestions on how I can order them?

    1. Author

      Hi Brandon, It depends on where you live. If you’re in the US, UK or even Australia, you might be able to track down a gourmet shop that sells Portuguese products and will deliver. I’ve just noticed that Amazon do olive oil…

  3. What a yummy post. I love olives especially if mixed with feta cheese and grapes! 🙂 My favorite meal. 🙂

    1. That sounds like a delicious combination – I’ll have to try it!

  4. I’m not a huge olive fan, but I would like to go olive picking once in my life. Then I would give them away as gifts.

  5. Hi Julie, you can not use tap water to process them (curar as azeitonas), you’ll have to use water without any kind of “treatment” (chlorine and other stuff), ideally water from a well.
    For black olives, my grandmother’s method was (as far as I remember) to “salt the water” until a raw egg was able to float, let the olives stay on that same water for some weeks in the dark. After some time taste the olives to see if they had already “sweetened”, change water and then add oregano and laurel.
    For green olives that were cut (retalhadas) or “crushed” (pisadas), just put them on water and change daily from a week to a month (it depends on the size and degree of maturation of the olives). When they are no longer bitter, add salt, laurel, oregano to the “final” water. Hope that it helps.

    1. Author

      Hi Fernanda,

      I had no idea that you can’t use tap water so no wonder ours were such a disaster last year. If we ever try again, I’ll try your grandmother’s tips so thanks for sharing them 🙂

  6. I never did my own olive curing either, but having lived in the country in Portugal I knew many people that did it. I love olives and can devour a handful when they are put in front of me at a restaurant! Here in Perth, the Portuguese club has the most delicious ones!! They have loads of garlic and herbs. I never asked who marinates them or where they get them from…I should!!

  7. I love to look at olives both on the trees and ready to eat – but I can´t stand the taste of them! How silly is that, living in Spain ?

    1. Author

      You’re not alone, but it’s a pity you don’t like them. I had to train myself to enjoy them but it worked.

      1. I´ve tried, but I just can´t stomach them 🙁

  8. I love olives, too. In fact, they make a perfect light meal with some fresh country-style bread and a nice glass of wine. Like you, I prefer mine with herbs, especially oregano, which is what my grandmother used to put in hers during the curing process. I’m afraid that’s all I remember about it, though. Good luck with your next harvest.

  9. Olives have always been my favorite food. My olives always come from some purveyor of Middle Eastern foods and I’ve never had the chance to brine them. Sounds interesting!

Over to you. Please share your thoughts in a comment.