HARASSED-LOOKING men jostled for their turn to park haphazardly by the entrance. Solid women accosted them, jabbing clinking carrier bags into their chests and demanding that they lift 25-litre drums of cooking oil into the tiny, groaning cars, two or three at a time. “Jesus,” I thought. “So this is shopping?”
The date was January 14, 1991, the place a supermarket near Bologna’s inner ring road. I had arrived in the city a few days before to begin a few months’ study at the university. I had neither much Italian at my command, nor much of a clue about Italian habits and characteristics. All I knew was that I needed to buy food, and so wandered innocently into a scene of pretty advanced chaos. Italy, it turned out, was staring down the barrels of a Very Serious Problem. The Civilised World was about to launch airborne Armageddon on Kuwait, in order to expel the Evil Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, who had invaded the place and was merrily committing human rights atrocities. Crucially though, he was also meddling with the balance of the carbon fuels trade. The political landscape of the Middle East was about to be savagely redrawn and there was much talk of a resulting global oil crisis. This had struck a chord deep in the Italian psyche. Without stopping to analyse the nature of the oil involved, the nation’s housewives took instant defensive action. They stripped every last container of olive oil from any retail outlet they could reach.
So two decades on I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself on hands and knees, groping at the back of a different supermarket’s shelves for the last few packets of salt. There is no war to threaten supplies of this kitchen essential, but it is open season on pickling and bottling round here. Much of the summer’s superabundant vegetables have already been put under oil and brine, literally salted away for winter use. But right now the olive harvest is in full swing.
Most olives, and this is about to be the case for the 38 trees on the plot we look after, end up being pressed to extract their precious oil. But before stripping the branches next week we have careful picking to do, selecting and preserving the olives we want for table and kitchen use. Personally, I am beside myself with excitement at this. Having lived in the UK since summer term ended at Bologna I have never had real, live olives to play with. This is a voyage of discovery, and some background reading is required.
The first principle to absorb is one of nomenclature. Most experts refuse to call Oliva Europea a tree, referring to it as a bush despite the fact that it looks and grows like, well, a tree. Italians generally refer to olives as piante, or plants, and as I’m here I’d better do the same. As to how to render the bitter, inedible fruit of this plant into the delicious, salty, mysterious wonder that is the table olive, an initial delve into the miasmic depths of the Internet suggests that there are several thousand ways. I put a pot of coffee on the stove, fire up suitable music (violin stuff by Genoa-born violin genius Nicolò Pagannini – explosively Italian), and get reading.
Salt water, or brine, seems to be the world-champion rendering agent for olives. That and its partner-in-alchemy, time. There are many very precise recipes available, but extracting an average from them gets the following result: immerse your olives in fresh water and change it daily, for between three and seven days. Then swap this for very salty water. Change this weekly for as many weeks as it takes for the olives to become edible. Green – unripe – olives may benefit from an alkalising agent being added to the water at some point early in the curing process. Oh, and if you slice or crush the fruit a bit before curing, it may or may not take less time.
Whoever planted our olives went for a mixture of varieties, which we’re told is a sure-fire way to a superior-quality olive oil. It also presents interesting possibilities for first-time curing experiments. We have small, green olives, fat brown examples and two sizes of glossy black fruit. I picked about 10 kilos of each. A trip to the nearest DIY store yields a trio of cheap, plastic bins with hinged lids. These are intended for recycling, so the lids come colour-coded conveniently in grey, green and brown.
As I write the three batches have passed through the freshwater stage and are skulking in the darkness of their first salt water immersion. Of course salt makes them float at the surface, where evil, oxidising air lurks. If you use a round vessel for your curing you can trap the fruit underwater with a plate. If you use recycling bins, which inconveniently are largely rectangular, you have to improvise with cling film. Noting the hint about alkalising green olives, I liberated a rather manky old box of sodium bicarbonate from the kitchen and emptied it into the green fruit's initial brine.
It was as I filled the bins with water for the first time that I recalled some amazing olives bought in Sainsbury’s last year. Moroccan in origin, they claimed to be salt-cured. They were dark, squidgy and required a desalinating dip in water before you ate them. This isn’t quite Morocco, but we have black olives. I picked a batch of both small and large black fruit and researched the matter. Packed in jars with sea salt around them, apparently these will keep on getting better. The salt leaches the excess moisture and bitterness from the olives, apparently.
Of course the only other ingredients in these recipes are a cool, dark place to keep the produce and what feels like almost infinite patience. The olives in brine might not be ready until around Christmas time, and I have absolutely no idea when those under salt might be at their peak. I will know, my Internet sources tell me cryptically. Once they are ready they can be stored in brine or salt respectively, or kept in jars under olive oil and flavourings such as bay and chilli. What stops me pacing the cantina floor until this point is exactly what keeps Italians from getting itchy fingers. Apart from those employed to restock supermarket shelves with salt. There are 38 piante out there that now need picking in order to provide the necessary oil.