The olives on the tree outside my window here in Greece are slowly fattening. A dusty green, they weigh down their slender stems of little silver-backed leaves a fraction further each day. When I first arrived, two weeks ago, the fruit was hugging the top of a whitewashed wall. Now it is halfway down and drooping dangerously close to the foot path where it threatens to be run over by a passing motor scooter.
Tended olive trees, such as the one in our back yard which is watered every week by our gardening neighbour, grow at an astonishing rate in summer, as does their fruit. Their less cared for wild cousins in the mountains produce small fruit that is barely worth harvesting. Not that irrigation is the answer to everything. The more water that is applied during the summer period, the larger the olives will be but the less oil they will contain. Consequently, I have deduced that the fruit from ‘my’ olive tree is destined for pickling rather than being taken to the local oil factory.
I must admit that watching the fruit grow is less arduous than preserving it, something I always do when visiting Greece during the December/January (winter) harvest period. The usual starting point in this practice (unless we are staying in a house with its own tree) is to ride by the olive groves on our bicycles and, en route, to snatch a few handfuls of fruit wherever it is destined to drop onto the road and be wasted.
Preserving the fruit is so simple (when the local method is used) that, providing I am in the village for 4-5 weeks, we are eating our own olives before we leave. To preserve olives, I first wash the fruit then either prick each olive over about an eighth of its surface with a needle or make 2-3 cuts in the flesh, lengthwise, as far in as the stone. I then steep the prepared olives in a non metalic container of brine (the brine consisting of 1 tablespoon of salt per litre of water).
For the first week of steeping, I change the brine on the olives 2-3 times. On the second week, I change the brine 2 times. At the end of the third week, I remove the olives from the brine and rinse them thoroughly with fresh water. Now is the time to pack the fruit into a container of choice. As the local population in my village traditionally does, I pop the olives through the neck of a soft drink bottle, but any non metallic container can be used provided it has a lid. When the container is loaded with fruit, I add to it a few sprigs of olive leaves and any flavourings that I think will suit. I may use lemon zest, or fresh herbs such as oregano or thyme, or a few leaves of basil. I fill the container with a brine consisting of 2 teaspoons of salt to 1 litre of water, and screw on the lid. The olives are best left for 2-3 weeks before eating but can be used just a week later.
If you are trying this recipe at home, keep in mind that this is the minimum treatment and that a sweeter preserve will result if more changes of brine are made in the first 1-2 weeks or if the soaking in the 1 tablespoon of salt to 1 litre of water brine is spread over a longer period of time.
While the rest of the world is peeling back the lid on cans of preciously prepared and expensive Kalamata olives, in Greece during winter, I am snipping off the top of my soda bottle and enjoying the tastiest of locally grown, home-preserved produce. For now however, I must be content with watching the fruit grow daily fatter with my only compensation being a daily dip in the luke-warm Aegean Sea.