A found olive is a rare thing, unless you live in Northern California. They grow everywhere here, yet few people even know the olives that fall in oily masses from their trees every year are actually the same as those they pay exorbitant prices for at places like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. But they are.
Whole parks are planted to the olive here. And from one such, I gathered several pounds’ worth last fall. Everything from the tiny arbequinas to the giant Missions hung there free for the taking. And for each I had a purpose intended.
Many of you know I have a fondness for Hellenic cuisine; the Greeks have a magic ability to extract the sublime from their limited set of ingredients. Nowhere is this more evident than on the island of Crete, where the food is simple and where foraging has been a high art since Theseus fought the Minotaur in Minos’ labyrinth.
These Cretan olives are the apogee of that thrift and simplicity. All they require are olives, salt, water, olive oil and the juice of the bitter Seville orange.
Curing them takes the longest: I picked these olives in early October, and they are just now losing that acrid bitterness that makes biting into an unripe persimmon seem like slurping on an August peach.
I acquired the Seville oranges from my friend Elise, who acquired them from one of her friends; Elise uses Sevilles for her marmalade. I needed them to add a citrusy tang to these lush Mission olives.
Once again, Diane Kochilas provided me with some added inspiration. I had heard of Greek olives in Seville orange juice before, but I was unsure of the exact proportions. Kochilas’ book has a recipe. Soak the cured olives in the juice for a few days (she says 2 days, but she uses cracked olives; whole olives require longer), then store them in one of two ways: Either covered in olive oil, or submerged in a 50-50 orange juice/8 percent brine, which is about 2 3/4 ounces of kosher salt combined with a quart of water.
These olives are a perfect combination of bitter and creamy. They are excellent as an apertif, or as a snack with bread, but they are too bitter for most people to eat on their own – although I like bitter foods and enjoy them solo. As for an accompanying drink, what could be better than raki or ouzo?