Expert recipe for preserving olives

Written by Clifford Roberts; Photographer Johan Viljoen

Here’s a recipe that’s a step-by-step guide on how to preserve olives – one that comes from a specialist in the premier olive growing region of the Swartland.

Keeping olives like shop-bought varieties is easy. The basic steps are to harvest the olives by hand, select the best fruit, cure the olives in a saltwater, or brine, solution for a few months and then preserve in vinegar with herbs and spices. This DIY recipe for preserving olives gives you all the correct measurements to ensure your harvest doesn’t spoil.

Which olives can be preserved?

There are various types of olives, so it’s useful to distinguish between table olives. Table olives are picked by hand; whilst some olives are selected specifically for making olive oil, which can also be harvested by mechanical methods and collected with nets.

For making table olives, black cultivars must be pitch black. Green cultivars may be picked when lighter green to straw colour. Oil cultivars are harvested when half-ripe to riper, as a mix. But in every case, fresh olives on the tree are bitter so they are very unpleasant to eat as such.

Make sure your olives are healthy

Olive trees have become a feature of many South African gardens because of their relatively low water requirements. The trees are beautiful and hardy, but preserving their fruit often puts people off. The task does take a few steps and you have to wait a few months until the olives have become less bitter. The truth is that preserving olives is easy, especially with expert advice from the Swartland.

The Swartland is primarily known for its wheatfields and wine, but it is also a premier producer of top-quality olives and olive oil. A pioneer of the Swartland’s industry was Kloovenburg, which planted its first trees in 1986. Olives are also grown at Dragonridge, Org de Rac and Lammershoek.

Another is Het Vlock Casteel, whose farm shop in Riebeek Kasteel is a must-visit for the vast arrangements in which olives are available. Food scientist Ansie Vlok and her family prepare olives in a range of formulations other than just olive oil, which is sold in different packaging options too. From smoked olives to olives preserved in balsamic vinegar to olive oil butter and olive pastes – it’s all here.

Olive farming has been part of the Volk Family’s farm since the 1990s. All the olives are handpicked and processed in the Riebeek Valley. It is Ansie’s recipe for preserving olives that is offered here.

When to harvest olives

Knowing when to harvest your olives is crucial to making sure you get typical, shop-style olives that are firm and delicious.

“The olives should be completely black when you pick them,” says Ansie. “Be careful, however, not to leave them on the tree too long otherwise they become overripe. Overripe olives become soft during preservation.”

The next step is to clean the olives and pick out the ones that are damaged or that may be diseased. “If you don’t have time to sort the olives immediately after harvest, then place them in a brine solution. They can stay like that until you can get to them.

“Never let your olives lie in plain water,” she warns. “They’ll go soft and not be up to your expectations!”

The recipe to make a brine solution

Olives lose their bitterness when fermented in brine. Brine is simply salty water. When preserving olives, you want to make sure the ratio of salt to water is correct because too much salt will give an off-putting taste and too little will result in spoilage.

The ratio of salt to water should be 1:10 or 10%. In other words, for every 10 grammes of salt, there must be 100 grams of water. So, for example, 2.5 litres of water will need 250ml (or one cup) of salt.

Mix the salt in the water until it is completely dissolved. If you have a large amount of brine to make, it’s easier to take a little of the measured water; heat it, dissolve the salt, and then return this brine to the main water container.

A tip for brining your olives

Keep in mind that your brine should not completely fill the container that you intend using for brining the olives. If it does, the container will overflow once you add your olives. A rule of thumb is to make brine for about half the container. For example, if you have a five-litre bucket you want to use, only make three litres (300g of salt to three litres of water) of brine. You can always top up with brine once the olives have been added.

If you were in a hurry and kept the olives in brine prior to sorting, you can re-use the brine for the olives once you’ve taken out the best olives.

The recipe for preserving your olives

This recipe is for a five-litre container of olives and brine. Any plastic container will do, but it should have a lid.

Step 1 – Curing your olives

  1. Dissolve 300g (10%) of salt in three litres of water to make the brine.
  2. Fill the container halfway. If there’s brine leftover, keep it aside.
  3. Gently add your olives, making sure not to bruise them.
  4. Top up with brine if necessary.
  5. Close the lid and put the container in a cool dark place.
  6. Store the container for up to 12 months, although black mission olives can take up to 24 months to lose their bitterness.
  7. After storage, taste an olive. If it’s still unpalatable, keep in the solution until ready.

During this phase, a white mould film may emerge on the surface of the brine. This is normal. Most importantly, the olives should always remain submerged in water. One way to ensure this, is to fill a plastic bag with brine water and float it on top of the olives, pushing them under.

If you find the water level in the container has dropped, top it up with a brine solution.

Step 2 – Finalising your olives

Once your olives have lost their bitterness, it’s time to finish off the process.

  1. Pour off the brine.
  2. OPTIONAL: At this stage, you may want to put the olives in brown vinegar for 12-24 hours as a flavour enhancement.
  3. Remove the olives from the vinegar and place in a flat dish, like an oven dish, and leave open for 12-24 hours. In the case of black olives, this will make them go darker, but they should not go black.
  4. Pack your olives in bottles. You can add a twig of origanum or rosemary, thyme, a bay leaf or even a slice of lemon.
  5. Pour ½ a teaspoon of olive oil over the olives. Ansie recommends Het Vlock Casteel’s olive oil.
  6. Prepare the finishing solution:
    • a.) Heat 4.5 litres of water in which you dilute 50-75g of salt (taste your olives for their saltiness before deciding) and 250 ml of brown vinegar. Bring to the boil.
    • b.) Pour the boiling hot solution of water-salt-vinegar into the bottle of olives, until full.
  7. Close tightly with a screwcap lid and turn the jar upside down, allowing it to cool.
  8. But your jars of olives away for another month.
  9. Add your choice of flavourings, such as 1 clove and 16 garlic cloves.

Now it’s time to enjoy your olive harvest, ideally with a glass of wine from a Swartland producer!

More about Swartland olives here:

• The Swartland Wine and Olive Route is a member organisation comprising the biggest representation of wine and olive producers of the Swartland region.

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