For an authentic taste of Italy, nothing beats the delicious salty and sweet flavors of cured or marinated olives from Sicily. Olive trees are among the oldest harvested trees, native to Syria and Asia Minor, and dating back more than 8,000 years. Olive trees are grown not from seeds, but from cut roots or branches buried in soil and allowed to take root. The trees grow slowly and require meticulous cultivation, but they have great longevity and some can live for as long as a millennium.
Many Varieties in Color and Taste
Until just a few decades ago, most American knew only a few varieties. Now, more people know not only about the different varieties, but also the diverse ways olives can be used in spreads, salads, stews, sauces or even plopped into drinks or eaten whole as a snack.
Also, fun fact — there are no green olive trees! The color is indicative of an olive’s ripeness. In general, the darker the olive, the riper it was when it was plucked from the tree. Green olives, which have a firm texture and nutty flavor, are often picked at the start of the harvest season, in September and October in the northern hemisphere. Black olives are picked between November and January, and are softer, richer, and meatier.
Whether you prefer black, green or red — there are many great varieties to choose from.
- Baresane: Ranging in color from yellow to green to light purple, these brine-cured olives from Puglia have a delicate, fresh flavor.
- Bella di Cerignola: Another brine-cured Puglian variety, these large, mild, buttery olives can be green, red or black.
- Castelvetrano: Also called Nocellara del Belice, these vibrant green Sicilian olive are treated with lye (instead of brining or salt-curing), for a mild, salty-sweet flavor and buttery texture.
- Gaeta: These popular black or dark purple olives from the Lazio region have a tart, citrusy flavor and are typically brined before storing in oil.
- Saracena: This ancient variety of olive from Sicily are small and black. The can be brined or salt cured.
- Taggiasca: These small, dark red (almost black) olives have a sweet, fruity flavor and are grown on the rocky, seaside slopes in Liguria.
Brining and Curing
If you have trouble telling the different types of olives apart, remember brine-cured olives have a smooth, plump skin; salt-cured (or oil-cured) olives (sometimes called oil-cured) have wrinkled skin and are lightly coated in oil. Here are some of our favorite Italian olives.
It’s a cure that makes an olive an olive, as raw, straight-of-the-tree olives are excruciatingly bitter. Fully ripened, dark olives are gradually fermented in a brine of salt water, which can take up to a year. Dry-cured olives get packed in salt for a month or longer to pull out moisture and bitterness from the olives. Olive gain distinctive qualities from genetics, region and climate, in addition to how they were harvested and cured.