Love them or hate them, in the Middle East and Cyprus, they appear on the table at practically every meal. I can’t remember when I first tasted olives, but I know I didn’t like them. The first ones I tried were small, black and bitter. I thought all olives would taste the same and decided that I would never eat them. That changed when I knew that I was going to be living in the Middle East. So, I set about learning to like them. After all, I thought, olives had been around for 6,000 years; some of the trees were hundreds of years old; and there were so many varieties of olives that surely I could find at least one that I could tolerate. I’m glad I persevered because if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on one of the great pleasures of eating, and now I can’t get enough of them.
Olives come in a variety of colours, from dense black to ‘olive green’ with various shades of purple, brown, pink and red in between. Some people think that black and green olives come from different trees. They don’t, they grow on the same trees – black olives are just green olives that have been left on the tree to ripen.
When I lived in Cyprus, one of my favourite lunches, was a piece of bread ripped from a newly-baked ‘village’ loaf and eaten with a chunk of
Kephalotiri cheese and a few long, purple Kalamata olives or elies tsakistes (cracked green olives) that have been dressed with olive oil, lemon, garlic and coriander. Although these olives could be bought ready-made in Cyprus, not long after I moved into the village, my neighbour, Tassoulla, showed me how to make them using olives from her own tree.
First of all, I needed 2 stones – 1 large and 1 small, and I should take my time and choose them carefully as stones are useful for bashing all sorts of things, like olives and almonds and carobs. I searched and found my stones in our garden. One was large, flat and smooth; the other was small and rounded and could fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. After Tassoulla had approved them, I had to scrub them clean then let them dry in the sun. When they were dry, I sat on the doorstep at the back door, rested the large stone on the ground and placed a single green olive on top of it. Tassoulla showed me how to crack the olive. Too soft a hit and it wouldn’t open, too hard and it would be pulverised.
After I had managed to crack most of them and ruin the rest, I had to place them in a large, glass jar and cover them with water. After 5 or 6 days, changing the water every day, they were ready for the next stage – brining. We boiled salt and water together to make the brine. Tassoulla measured most things by eye and I was intrigued when halfway through the process, she dropped a whole egg into the brine, tutted and added more salt, bit by bit, until the egg floated to the surface – then she stopped and removed the egg -the brine was salty enough.
The last stage involved pouring off the water and replacing it with the brine, tucking a few slices of lemon between the olives in the jar and covering them with a couple of vine leaves. Now I had green olives, sitting on my shelf, whenever I needed them. All I had to do was take a few out of the jar, rinse them in cold water and add olive oil, garlic and coriander. There’s no need to go through all that if you want to make these at home as you can buy the olives ready-cracked and all you need to do is add the dressing. Here is the recipe:
Elies Tsakistes (Cracked Green Olives)
Take 150gr cracked green olives (or, if you can’t find any, you can buy medium-sized green olives and crack them yourself with a rolling pin – they still taste delicious), rinse them in cold water and place them in a bowl. Next, roughly crush 1/2 – 1 tbsp whole coriander seeds, either with a pestle and mortar or a rolling pin (cover them with clingfilm first or put them in a plastic bag first) and add them to the bowl with a crushed clove of garlic, 2 tbsp olive oil and a good squeeze of lemon. Mix them until the olives are glistening and covered with flecks of coriander seeds. You can put them in a jar or a bowl (covered) and keep them in the fridge until you need them, if you can wait that long to eat them. Serve them as a snack, with drinks, or as part of a mezze. Or just place a few olives on a plate with some of the oil, dip a piece of warm pitta bread or any good bread into the oil, and scoop up an olive with the bread. Delicious.