From chefs drizzling to dietitians dishing, olive oil gets a lot of love.
So what about the taste and health attributes of olives? Tossed into salad, on top of pizza, chopped into a tapenade or simply set out with toothpicks for cocktail hour, olives add color, flavor and texture to so many dishes.
On a recent Harvest to Fork trip to Northern California’s Central Valley I dined at area restaurants as well as catered affairs on the farm in black and green ripe olives found their way into every course from appetizers to dessert. Candied olives and tangerine marmalade top vanilla bean ice cream for dessert at The School House Restaurant in Sanger and a petite ham salad sandwich at Hock Farm in Sacramento were culinary olive highlights.
Northern California’s Central Valley from Fresno to Chico is olive country where more than one thousand family farms produce ninety-five percent of the ripe olives sold in the U.S.
On a recent trip to this important agricultural region shared with almonds, walnuts and stone fruit trees, I learned how olives go from grove to gourmet eats.
Processed is a good thing
If you plucked an olive from the tree and popped it in your mouth, you’d be pretty disappointed. Olives must be cured to neutralize a bitter substance called oleuropein. Curing processes vary worldwide, mostly involving salty brine.
A recipe for curing ripe black olives in California was invented in the late 1800’s by a housewife named Freda Ehmann. Cured with lye and brine for seven days, olives all start out green but when exposed to oxygen turn an ebony black color. If you grew up eating pitted black olives and even placed them on your fingertips for fun, chances are you were eating ripe olives from California.
A visit to two massive olive canneries, Musco Family Olive Company and Bell-Carter Foods, revealed a few secrets to success including careful selection of olives still firm so they don’t soften during the canning process and continuous monitoring of the fermentation process to produce tasty green and black olives.
California registered dietitian and chef Cheryl Forberg, who is the nutritionist for NBC’s Biggest Loser and author of the “Flavor First Cookbook”, notes that California ripe olives canned in water are actually a calorie bargain, “They’re pretty low in fat and a good source of dietary fiber to help fill you up.”
A serving of medium pitted black ripe olives (five olives) contains just 25 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. And it’s the same heart healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil.
What about the sodium in canned olives? Not that high really at 115 milligrams per serving; only five percent of the Daily Value recommended for sodium intake.
Forberg says a few olives go a long way to add a lot of flavor to other healthy foods such as vegetables, fish and lean meats, “They’re a foodie friend to help encourage good eating habits.”
Environmental stewardship is an olive industry goal too. For instance, the fibrous pits removed from olives – which contain about six percent oil – are burned as an alternative energy source.
There’s plenty of them; Musco’s Environmental Director Ben Hall says, “We produce fifteen to twenty five tons of pits per day.”
More Olives Please
As a nutrition advisor for Best Food Facts.org I love learning as much as possible about growers, farmers, producers and food processors, because the more you know, the more you can eat!