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"The olive tree is certainly the richest gift of heaven."
- Thomas Jefferson
According to legend, the goddess Athena endowed the ancient Greeks with two gifts: wisdom and olives. The Greeks, in turn, graced France's Mediterranean coast with the olive tree in about 6000 b.c. It has flourished in the local rocky, sun-baked soil ever since.
Olives are an intrinsic part of everday life in France's Provence region, particularly in the fall and winter when the olive harvest is underway. And the fruit of this ancient tree flavors an infinite array of traditional dishes from Salade Nicoise and cake aux olives (a savory olive bread), to tapanade (olive pur╚e) and pissaladiere (onion, olive and anchovy tart).
The variety of olives harvested in Provence is particularly rich. Their colors range from pale straw to jet black. Their textures vary from firm to fleshy and their size and shape from tiny ovals to half-moons, and larger, fat rounds. If the size and shape of different olives depend upon their variey or the "cultivar," their color is always a measure of ripeness. During the ripening process, olives pass through a spectrum of shades from pale green to tan, then to violet and finally to brownish-red and coal black before they start to wrinkle in the rays of the sun.
Well before this stage, around the month of May, the discreet flowers of the olive tree give birth to tiny beads no larger than pinheads. Until September, the fruit fattens and the pit hardens. The olive won't be completely ripe until winter, but from the moment it is fully formed (September-October) it can be picked and treated. Thus, in Provence, the olive harvest lasts from early fall until well into winter. The harvesting and processing of olives is a delicate matter, particularly for olives destined for the table rather than for oils. Picked entirely by hand, table olives are fragile and must be treated with great care. The picker, according to Proven┴al dialect, "cajoles" rather than plucks the fruit from the vine.
Even when fully ripened, the fruit of the olive tree remains inedibly bitter in its natural state. The olives that we savor on the tables and in the cuisine of Provence are truly products of man's ingenuity. Transforming this bitter fruit into a culinary delight requires careful curing to draw out its acidulence.
Procedures for curing vary from one olive producing area to another and depend upon the ripeness of the fruit when picked. Green olives, least ripened and therefore the hardest and most bitter of olives, are often cracked, then soaked in solutions of soda or potash before being cured with fresh water and herb-flavored brines. Provence's famous picholine olives are cured in this manner and flavored with fennel, coriander and other seasonings. Black olives are often washed and pricked before being cured in salt and then conserved in brine.
Approximately 20 varieties of olives are cultivated in France today, and annual olive production hovers around 15,000 tons. Only twenty percent of the olives harvested attain the privileged status of table olives. The remaining eighty percent is pressed into health-sustaining green-gold oil.
French table olives are generally not fermented during conservation which accounts for their fresh, fruity flavor. But this lack of conservation limits their shelf-life to a few months. For this reason, it tis best to buy olives loose, preferably in the large wooden barrels one sees in local stores near olive-producing regions of Provence. If not consumed immediately, olives should be stored in a cool place, completely covered with olive oil. Some of the most popular varieties of green French table olives include the almond shaped, Picholine, redolent of coriander and herbs, the Salonenque, a green to tan, cracked olive harvested and consumed in September, and the Lucque, a half-moon shaped, fleshy olive prepared in a particularly aromatic brine. Among the most popular black olives of Provence are fat, round and wrinkled "Nyons," and the "Nicoise" olive, a tiny, smooth purple-black oval that flavors the famous salad of the same name.
Two of the many Proven┴al recipes that put olives to their best advantage follow. The first, a savory appetizer bread flavored with Provence's best green olives and bits of bacon is a specialty of the Stohrer pastry shop in Paris.
Cake Aux Olives
Although the name implies a sweet preparation, this "cake" is a rich savory specialty studded with aromatic Proven┴al green olives and ham. It should be baked in a loaf pan, then sliced and served with aperitifs.
2 cups flour
4 whole eggs
2/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup dry vermouth
1/2 oz. baking powder
1 1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese
salt and pepper to taste
7 ozs. fresh green olives, pits removed
7 ozs. ham or bacon, diced
Preheat the oven to 355 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make a well in the flour and add the eggs, oil, white wine and vermouth. Combine until well mixed. Add the baking powder and the grated cheese. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Fold in the green olives and the ham or bacon. Turn the mixture into a well-greased or non-stick bread pan or oblong cooking terrine.
Place in the preheated oven and cook for one hour to an hour and twenty minutes, until a knife inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let cool briefly before turning out of the mold. Place on a wire rack and let cool completely before slicing.
Slice thinly and serve whole slices or quartered slices with cocktails.
This pur╚e of ripe black olives is a mainstay of Proven┴al cuisine. It can be spread on thick slices of toasted country bread to be served with appetizers. It can also be incorporated into other preparations. For example, spread a thin layer of tapenade in the center of a lamb fillet, roll, saut╚ and slice the fillet. Serve hot with a light tomato sauce or an eggplant caviar.
9 ozs. ripe black olives
20 anchovy fillets
1 3/4 ozs. capers
12 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Remove the pits from the olives. Soak the anchovies in milk or water to remove the salt. Rinse well and pat dry.
Combine the olives, anchovy fillets and capers in a food processor and process briefly. Continue to process, adding the olive oil a little at a time until well incorporated. Add the lemon juice and pepper. Chill until ready to use.