About Table Olives

When olives first begin to form on the tree, they contain no oil, just a mixture of acid and sugar.  Gradually, as the fruit ripens, the acid and sugar turn into oil whilst at the same time changing colour from pale green, through to rose and violet, deep aubergine and finally black. 

Whilst olives can be picked at any stage, the degree of ripeness determines the taste.  Unlike other stone fruit, olives are inedible straight from the tree, without being cured.

At the picking stage, olives will consist of almost 75% water, 12-25% oil, with the rest being made up of sugars (2 - 3%), fibre, organic acids, vitamins and minerals.

The term “table olives” refers to olives intended to be eaten as opposed to being crushed into oil.

The processes by which raw olives are made edible vary widely.  The olives may be water cured, brine cured, lye cured, oil cured, dry cured or sun dried, like tomatoes. Preserving them in brine (salted water) is the most common way to eliminate the bitterness.  The olives are kept at a warm temperature which allows naturally occurring yeasts to cause fermentation and break down the olives’ bitterness.  This process may take from six weeks to nine months or longer. The curing time varies depending on the variety of olives, and the desired texture and taste.

While native to the Mediterraenean region, tropical and central Asia and various parts of Africa, the olive has been savoured around the world for thousands of years. 

Plain table olives make a versatile and appetising ingredient which can be added to a host of dishes including omelettes, salads, pastas, seafood, stuffings and meat dishes.  

While the benefits of olive oil are widely advertised, the EU dietary guide quotes table olives as a good source of zinc, potassium, calcium and vitamins A, D, E and K.   They are rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. 

Table olives grown in WA include Manzanilla, Sevillana, Kalamata, Verdale, Picholene and Corregiola. WA table olives, tapenades and olive pastes are available from gourmet delicatessens, and various farmers markets throughout the state. 

A Quality Table Olive

It is important to realise that table olives vary a great deal with respect to the attributes mentioned below.  It is up to the consumer to experience as many different styles and flavours as possible and in so doing, build up a profile of their favoured olives.  Awareness of the factors that constitute a quality product can positively benefit the consumer in this choice.

The first characteristic of a product that we notice is, of course, appearance. This is a vital attribute that will make us decide whether to try the product or not.    Positive attribute include generally uniform shape, size, and colour, unblemished skin and appealing colour.

The organoleptic characteristics of any food product, which describe the flavour, encompass three sensory perceptions, being aroma, taste and mouthfeel (texture).

Aroma

A well-prepared olive should have a clean acceptable aroma, with fruity and spicy characteristics. The aroma will give a good indication of how the processing was managed as most of the volatile components are a result of the fermentation process.  Any off-odour should not be present. 

Taste

The taste and flavour of a food product is quite subjective – it depends on what the taster is accustomed to.  Often, a consumer not accustomed to olives will usually prefer a more delicate product, however once hooked, they may seek out products with a lot more flavour; the natural olive flavour in particular.

A quality table olive should display a balance between the natural flavour of the fruit, the natural lactic acid and added salt and vinegar.  The acid produced by the fermentation should be perceived as pleasant and fully integrated with the fruit flavours, and therefore far more appealing than acid that has been added to the final product.    Table olives should also display pleasant levels of salt, bitterness and/or sweetness.

Texture

An olive should have a degree of firmness in the flesh, without being tough or woody. The skin of the fruit should not be too tough, and the flesh should be crisp and detach from the pit quite readily.

The texture of an olive is determined by numerous factors, mainly the fruits' ripeness when harvested, and variety. The methods of processing will then play an equally important role, which may either maintain the texture of the fruit or compromise it.