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.
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.
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!
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.
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