Olive Power - The History and Future of Raw Olives

History of Olives

Olives are one of the oldest foods known to man, they have been around for centuries and are thought to have originated in Crete, an island in Greece. Archaeological evidence suggests they were grown there as far back as 2500 B.C.
Olives are mentioned in the Bible, depicted in ancient Egyptian art, and are heavily featured in Greek mythology. Regarded as a symbol of peace and wisdom the olive tree has provided food, fuel, timber and medicine since ancient times.

Health Benefits of Olives

Olives are actually the fruit of the tree known as Olea europaea, olea meaning oil which refers to its high fat content and europaea refers to Europe the region they originate from. They come in many shapes, sizes and colours, black, green, purple, large, small, oval, round, the list goes on. Regardless of appearance however, all olives are high in nutritive value. Everyone has heard of how wonderful olive oil is for the health, the Greeks have known this since antiquity and still boast about their main export. Nutritionally, olives are mostly fat, sodium & just a tiny bit of carbohydrates. 75% of the fat that is contained in olives is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that has been shown to:
  • Lower blood cholesterol levels
  • Promote the development of bones and marrow
  • Help maintain balance in the metabolism
  • Fight oxidization which lies at the root of all the serious diseases of modern day living
Both olives and their oil are also a good source of vitamin E and other beneficial phytonutrient compounds including polyphenols and flavonoids which appear to have significant anti-inflammatory properties, delay aging and assist in the restoration of body tissues, both internal and external. As well as creating a defensive mechanism against cancer, atherosclerosis, liver disorders and inflammations and acting as a shield against infections.

What really happens to the olive from tree to table?

Olives are rarely palatable eaten right off of the tree; they require special processing to reduce their intrinsic bitterness, caused by the glycoside oleuropein, which is concentrated in their skin. The processing method varies with the olive variety, cultivation region, and the desired taste, texture and colour to be created.

Some olives are picked green and unripe, while others are allowed to fully ripen on the tree to a black colour. Yet, not all of the black olives available begin with a black colour. Some processing methods expose unripe green olives to the air, and the subsequent oxidation turns them a dark colour. In addition the original colour of the olive is affected by fermentation and/or curing in oil, water, brine or salt.

There are two different processes which an olive can undergo before it is served in a salad. The slow and traditional process of the green olive begins with picking (when not truly ripe) and careful handling to prevent bruising. They are then steeped in changes of cold water for a period of 10 days and finally put in strong brine (salt water) for approximately 3 months. During this period they undergo a lactic ferment whereby the salt drives off the bacteria. They are then ready to eat, or for marinating in oil.

For black olives the slow, natural process starts with picking when ripe and then leaving them in fresh water for 10 days, then allowing them to mature in brine for nine months. All slow processed olives are technically raw, but have been cured using salt.

On the other hand the fast process (the commercial process) involves the olives being artificially oxidised in a "sparging" tank where air bubbles are forced through the water. Caustic soda (E524) is then added to artificially remove bitterness then the olives are heat treated to kill bacteria.

Commercially produced, preserved olives are either pasteurised (heated to 78 degrees for five minutes) or sterilised (heated to 125 degrees for 35 minutes). Tinned olives are without a doubt sterilised. Sterilisation cooks the olives, softening and drying them out, and producing the standard pizza olive which is tasteless and nutrientless.

Olive oil

After watching a documentary in Greece about olive oil I was astonished to find out that unless the bottle states that the oil is extra virgin olive oil there is the possibility that it has been mixed with old, highly refined oils. I always make sure my oil is extra virgin and tend to buy it in bulk from small farmers of the nearby villages wherever possible. However, I am outraged that this is allowed to happen and the public are none the wiser. This documentary was reporting what goes on in Greece, therefore I cannot comment on what happens in other olive oil producing countries. I am also not suggesting that this is done by all manufacturers of olive oil in Greece, bug please please ensure you only buy Extra Virgin Olive oil to be sure you are getting a good quality oil.

The good news is that extra virgin olive oil is a natural product, not modified in any manner by the procedure used for the extraction of the oil from the olives. Precise thermal conditions are maintained during processing and no chemicals or solvents are used to enhance the extraction procedure. On the contrary, pomace oils (other forms of olive oil) are made from the left over pulp from the first pressing combined with solvents and even though this oil is said to be fit for consumption and is readily available in the supermarket it is not allowed to pose itself as olive oil, instead it often appears as refined olive oil and there is no way I would recommend it or even think about consuming it myself because not surprisingly it is a very poor quality oil.

Raw olives

I started to search for the best Greek raw olives not only because the cost of ‘raw’ olives is high, but also because I was not at all impressed with their taste, especially when compared to the delicious olives in Greece I know so well - not being biased of course.

Living in Greece, a country where olives are in abundance and are part of everyday life, I can see first-hand their true value and taste first-hand their depth of flavour. Even though the olive, if bought from the supermarket can still be expensive by Greece standards they are still about a third of the price than those of the average raw food outlet. Why is that? If the best olives are found in Europe because that is where they originate from then why are they being imported from places like Peru and America? I was astonished to discover that one particular outlet in America is selling raw ‘Greek Olives’ which were actually produced in California, am I wrong in thinking that that is a huge misconception to their customers?

More digging helped me to discover the process of the raw Peruvian olives sold by other retailers. The unsalted olives are picked after they have ripened on the tree, good so far, but then they are sterilized with steam, this entails a low temperature pressure wash of around 110 degrees in order to clean the olives. After the sterilization period the olives are then sun dried before being packaged. Am I wrong in thinking that steam comes from a very hot substance rendering the steam also hot?

Having thoroughly researched and spoken to many olive farmers about the possibility of raw olives from Greece I was told by an olive producer that the steam sterilization process is a very quick blast of steam which means the olives remain at a safe temperature and enzymes are not lost. I am still not sure that either way the olives remain in enzymatic tact.

I searched high and low for months for the perfect raw Greek olive, preferably without salt. I spoke to many olive farmers and was told many times that it is impossible to cure an olive without salt or that olives are inedible uncured. The farmers in Greece are very proud of their products and indeed they should be seeing as they work very hard to get great results, however they are also set in their ways and I am sure I heard a ‘this girl is out of her mind’ tone in most of their voices when I was talking about eating olives straight from the tree.

Has anyone tried an olive straight from the tree?

I have, and lets just say it is an acquired taste, they are very crunchy, not juicy at all leaving you with a dry mouth and a very bitter aftertaste, but what I’ve come to realize is that this is exactly what raw foodists are looking for. So, just as I was about to give up hope and call in the search party I discovered a place in Greece which produces an olive that ripens on the tree, you can imagine my excitement at the news.
An island called Thasos in the north Aegean sea produces Throuba olives which are very similar to the Peruvian Botija olive. I called the Velouitinos company and with my best Greek spoke to Vaggelis the farmer himself, he explained the process which although involves salt guarantees that no heat other than that from the sun while on the tree is used. The method used for their organic olives is concise and clean and the results are a truly amazing olive. Vaggelis happily sent me a couple of bags to sample. When my olives arrived I knew straight away I was on to something. As soon as I picked them up from the post office without further delay I broke open the seal and popped my first shiny blacker then black Velouitinos olive into my mouth. Mmmmm I can taste it now, a meaty, smooth oily texture and an intense olive taste without the interference of saltiness. Hurrah, that confirms what I have been saying all along; Greece really does have the best olives.  These Throuba olives contain 1.8% salt, less than half the amount found in standard olives.  The olives are rich in flavour without too much salt allowing the flavour of the olive itself to shine through.  Due to the curing method and the salt used there is also no bitter taste.  

We also now stock Unsalted Black Date olives from the same supplier which although are a little bitter in taste are very palatable and surprisingly moreish.   

To purchase a packet of the best raw olives available click here

Now you have all the facts about olives you can make up your own mind about which olives you choose to eat, some people don’t mind cured olives or salt, I myself am a sucker for a good traditionally cured Kalamata olive, not the jarred kind of course. Other people avoid salt and are looking for the perfect palatable unsalted tree ripened olive. The same way no two people are the same, neither are their tastes and choices.



April 27, 2016

I have pitted all of my green olives and put them in water for a few days but they are starting to turn a blackish colour on the inside. I am wondering if they are still able to be used or do I need to start again and ensure they are pushed down into the water? Thanks for your help.

Mohammad Yar
Mohammad Yar

May 14, 2015

Thanks to the author. The writer has done a lot of search, efforts and has consumed long-time to produce this article. In fact it is a very informative, useful and impressive post.

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