Meet me at the Olive Bar!

By Terry Sweeney

Just as where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s crazy, there’s Lindsay Lohan, where there’s a grape growing on a vine in Tuscany, you’re sure to find an olive tree.

In the Mediterranean, olive groves often share the same dry stony hard-scrabble and have for thousands of years. The olive tree is amongst the oldest known cultivated trees in the world. Grown in Crete in 3,000 B.C., the Greeks were some of the first folks to squeeze these little suckers and get the oil out, which they used not only to cook their meals but also burned to light their houses. (After my last electric bill, I’m considering bringing back that charming ancient Greek custom and taking a trip to Greece with the money I save!) Then along came those unstoppable macho Roman centurions who loved olives almost as much as watching gladiators beat each other to a pulp. And that’s saying a lot. They took olives and wine with them wherever they conquered and thus the olive was introduced throughout the entire Oily Roman Empire.

Fast forward to my Italian mother who used olives or olive oil in almost every dish she cooked for us kids.  I reluctantly learned at her knee to acquire a taste for all the different olives she used in all her antipasto platters. My probing young

The Olive Bar at Whole Foods in Charleston.

mind, suspicious of these pungent briny little buggers, would often wonder aloud as to why anyone would willingly pop one in their mouth.  My mother Lenore, ever the patient, loving, wise elder that she was, would yell,” Just shut up and eat it! There are people starving in China!” “How ‘bout we send them my olives?” was always the unspoken question on the tip of my tongue.

Now I love olives and they are a gourmet staple in my Happy Wino repertoire when I’m having guests.  One of the most easy and enjoyable ways to class up your appetizers and make them memorable is to match up a Mediterranean wine with a serving of Mediterranean olives, nuts, cheeses and breads. Nothing says “You ain’t in Honey Boo Boo’s House” as when you serve a dollop of olive tapenade on a warm baguette. Be bold! Go wild! Show the other PTA moms who they’re dealing with! Wow them with these Mediterranean olives and pairing suggestions:

From Italy:

• Ligurian olives — black shiny olives that are high in oil with a delicate sweet flavor.

• Cerignola — huge crisp green olives that look great on an appetizer platter and taste even better.

• Black Sicilian olives — purplish black round olives that have an intense firm meaty texture and smell divine.

Any or all of these can be paired with a chunk of Parmesano cheese; mini-Mozzarella balls in olive oil and spices; roasted almonds and strips of toasted focaccia bread.

Pair with your favorite Chianti, Sangiovese, or my favorite pricey guilty pleasure, Brunello di Montalcino.

From Spain:

• Gordal olives — also know as Queen olives one of my favorites (Surprise!) They have a firm meaty texture and best when they’re in a spicy brine that brings out their robust flavor.

• Manzanilla — very munchable, small crisp nutty olives (that go well with garlic and olive oil in cooking).

Serve with marconi almonds; chunks of manchego and strips of toasted smoked paprika garlic bread; and marinated artichoke hearts. For the wine, an earthy delicious Marques de Caceres Rioja. $15.

From France: 

• Nicoise olives — tiny black and delicately relish olives that of course can go in a Nicoise Salad, duh!

Picholine — uncracked green olives.

Serve these up with a vegetable pate; blanched haricot verts with aioli mayonnaise dip; and that olive tapenade and baguette I mentioned earlier.

My red choice for this is Belleruche Cote du Rhone Rouge, $13, affordable and delicious.

From Greece: 

Kalamata olives are the best known Greek olive with a distinctive pointed almond shape and cured in a red wine brine. These olives are rich, silky and ultra-luscious. But beware a cheap kalamata!  Look for a jar of hand picked (because supposedly when they are picked by machine, they ruin them).  Serve with Feta cheese; spanikopita; stuffed grape leaves; and hummus with warm pita triangles.

For the wine I recommend a Zinfandel like Bogle Old Vine Zin, $12, or for something lighter, a Belleruche Cote du Rhone Rose, $13.

Now you know enough about olives to impress your friends and your frenemies!  If your interest has been piqued, why not take your own culinary road trip to say … The Olive Bar at Whole Foods in Charleston where you can start taste-testing for yourself. Luckily it’s not an expensive habit like shopping or heroin, and it’s the one bar you don’t need a designated driver to take you home from.  Hope to see you soon at the olive bar one of these days.  I may even buy you an olive. That’s the kind of guy I am.


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