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Fresh Olives:

Will They Ripen Without Salt, Fermentation, And Curing?

Fresh olives that actually taste good have always stuck out as something of an impossibility. The common belief about the fruit is that they will be bitter and unpalatable unless you cure them with some combination of lye, sodium hydroxide, a water-salt mixture called brine, or through fermentation.

When picked fresh off the tree, your average olive is quite bitter. This is caused by naturally-occurring phenolic compounds and oleuropein, a glycoside. Oleuropein, a bitter carbohydrate, is also a problem.

Soaking fresh olives in water leeches out much of the oleuropein. Fermentation breaks down the oleuropein and phenolic compounds, and the lactic acid produced by this process gives olives the taste you probably associate with olives. The end product, preserved by the salt, will not spoil under most circumstnaces.
Fresh Olives Black Olives On Tree

This, of course, is the story you always hear. Awhile back I even set out to confirm it in preparation for an article I was writing on raw olives. I spent several days talking to olive experts at the University of California as well as olive farmers.

Although they said attempts to breed less bitter olives had made progress, some form of processing was still required.

Most health-conscious raw foodists, knowing full well that salt is unhealthy and causes the body to retain waterweight, and that fermentation essentially creates poison, hear this information and conclude that fresh olives cannot be eaten in a healthy manner, as I did.

Fresh Olives: Thierry Suggests Another Idea

Recently I met up with Thierry Casasnovas in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and he mentioned that this may not be the whole story.

He's found that if he allows olives to ripen without going moldy, they naturally become quite tasty without any curing.

He uses the following method
  1. Get fresh olives (his experience is with black olives).
  2. Store the olives in a dry, air-ventilated environment for a long length of time, perhaps 1 to 2 months, depending on environmental conditions. Eventually they will "ripen," and become tasty without the need for any curing.
  3. At this point the olives are not dried or fermented, but Thierry says that if left uneaten they will quickly dry out and become less than ideal. His solution is to place them in a sealed glass container without adding water or salt. Ripe olives stored in this condition will aparently stay fresh for years without going bad.
I'm perfectly willing to admit that this whole story seems strange to me, and does not follow the natural cycle of ripening and decay we find in most fresh, unprocessed, and unpreserved food.

But I'm intrigued. Thierry's idea is that olives have a much longer ripening period than we would consider normal or convenient, but that if given time, they ripen and lose their bitterness. This could be compared to how tannin-heavy and bitter unripe persimmons gradually lose their tannin content as they ripen, becoming sweet.

I can't speak for this idea because I have no experience in the area, but I find it worthy of more research.

If you have any personal experience ripening olives without the aid of brine, salt, fermentation, or any other curing process, I'd love to hear about it. Please contact me here.

Fresh Olives: Following Up

Surprised that fresh olives can be considered controversial? Find out what foods are ideal and harmful here.

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