Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Olive - 'One of the Most Perfect Foods'

I was a 'foodie' in the Eighties (in the days when I ate...everything) and, on the raw food diet, still am - always on the lookout for the best ingredients, the most delicious taste experiences! One food I missed in the early days of raw was olives, but oh how that has changed, due to my discovery of truly raw olives (more later).

The Roman poet, Horace, described his own very simple diet thus: 'As for me, olives, endives and smooth mallows provide sustenance.' How can this be? We are always being told we need to consume a wide variety of foods for a 'balanced' diet. But, unless Horace was fibbing, apparently just three foods were supplying his nutritional needs! Well, as raw fooders know, it is possible to be healthy eating a relatively small number of foods, provided those foods are whole, and undamaged by heat.

The olive was described by the philosopher Lord Monboddo as 'one of the most perfect foods'. And 'the science bits' can explain why. The olive is a fatty fruit, but the fat is mostly monounsaturated (the good kind, that lowers cholesterol). It also has an alkalising effect on our bodies (disease thrives in an acid environment). Olives are loaded with beneficial omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (the ones some would have you believe are only contained in fish). They're also high in Vitamin A (carotene) and Vitamin E and are full of antioxidants (that destroy the 'free radicals' that can cause cancer). They're rich in calcium and magnesium and high in amino-acids (which our bodies use to make protein). And of course the olive plays a starring role in the (cooked-food) 'Mediterranean diet'.

But of course these precious, and so delicious, little powerhouses of good things will only contain the full complement of nutrients if they're raw, ie not damaged by heat.

Since going raw, I've been aware that there is some confusion as to whether olives on sale at retail outlets are raw or not, whether it's possible to obtain raw olives, and if indeed raw olives would be good to eat; as a grecophile with a passion for olives I'm pleased to tell you that not only can I supply answers to these questions but I can also tell you where you can buy the most delicious, truly raw olives.

Are olives commonly on sale in the UK raw?

In 99% of cases, no - not even those sold in the deli or farmers' market. They'll have been pasteurised (heated to around 80 C for a few minutes). But, these premium olives, if soaked in brine only with no additives, are relatively close to the raw olive. So, if you're not 100% raw, and happy eating pasteurised olives, these are the ones to buy.

Give a wide berth to canned olives (often sterilised to 125 C for half an hour and mixed with preservatives). Also, be aware that green olives are (usually) unripe olives. As you know, they taste quite different from black olives. Did anyone enjoy their first taste of a green olive? I believe it's a taste we shouldn't have 'acquired', as fruit should be eaten when it's ripe and not before. Beware of 'black' olives (in jars or tins) that include ferrous glucomate. They're often green olives in disguise. Ferrous glucomate is variably listed as a stabiliser or colour, but the effect is to darken the colour of the olive. I used to find these sorts of olives didn't taste very nice either. They can often be found on cheap pizzas or in 'healthy' salads at fast food chains.

Is it possible to buy olives that have not been heat-treated at all? Yes, it is.

Are olives in their natural state bitter?

When writing the first version of this article, I asked Waitrose whether their olives were raw or pasteurised and they informed me that 'you can't eat olives raw - they'd be too bitter.' Well, you certainly can! Some on-line raw food stores sell unpasteurised olives, and they taste very good! However, some of the varieties are cured (salted) and perhaps what Waitrose meant by raw was not only unpasteurised, but not cured, ie 'from the tree'.

And many people do believe that olives from the tree, not cured (unsalted), are 'inedible', and 'too bitter'.

However, I have recently had the good fortune to sample uncured Greek olives. I found them delicious, and sweet (with a wonderfully crunchy texture)! These were ripe olives, air-dried. Unripe raw olives, by all accounts, don't taste good, but neither does any unripe fruit. Raw, uncured olives that are ripe, whether they've ripened on the tree or after falling to the ground, taste quite different. I wonder if the reports of uncured olives being 'inedible' possibly come from the fact that those producing olives pick them unripe?

I've heard there are differences between varieties, and although I find the raw, uncured Peruvian olives currently sold by the online stores palatable, I can't say that I enjoy them nearly as much as the Greek ones - they're less sweet. Although it's not really fair of me to tell you that, as the particular Greek ones I'd tried aren't on sale - yet. (But there's a very good alternative - more later!)

Perhaps the reason some describe raw olives as inedible, and others love them is simply because tastes do vary, as did those of the raw mother and daughter in this account:
Victoria Boutenko ('Twelve Steps to Raw'): 'During our travels that spring, we visited our friend Marlene. Marlene had a beautiful olive tree. There were olives underneath the tree already starting to rot. Valya said, 'I want to try them. Oh they are delicious.' I tried them. To me they were too bitter. Valya enjoyed the olives so much that she gathered them up in plastic bags to take with us.'

Heat is not necessary. Provided olives are salted only, and not heated, the vital nutrients should be left intact. Most olives sold throughout the world are cured, ie left in salt water for several months (some commercial processes speed up the curing by artificially oxidising the olives then adding caustic soda, then heat-treating to kill bacteria).

So, in order to enjoy cured olives as close to the natural state as possible, find suppliers that salt the olives in the gentlest way possible and do not pasteurise before sale. Or, ideally, find suppliers that do not use salt in the curing.
And, hey, in the UK, we're lucky enough to have one! Gina Panayi of is selling delicious UNSALTED, RAW Kalamata olives! They're soaked in olive oil, so if you want your olive is near to 'off the tree' as possible, just rinse off the oil. I much prefer these to the Peruvian type - Gina's are plump and moist - like the Kalamatas we ate in our 'previous lives'!

Raw olives certainly cost more than the pasteurised cooked variety. But it's worth it for the preservation of all the nutrients the olive was designed to give us, not to mention the taste!


E*phi said...

Oh, dear, olives!
Always used to hate them since I was a child, even the "authentic greek ones" in the holidays!
However, I discovered the Peruvian olives from Shazzie and love them! I don' find them bitter, but very intense, and as you said oily. I think they even have some kind of... hmm... chocolate-y taste to me.
I haven't tried the Greek olives you mentioned, but had some (raw) from France, ordered from a small German company (not sure if they ship to the UK, so I don't know if it makes sense looking it up to tell you the details for "extended resources"), they were as I imagine your Greek ones - looking more "conventional", soft, less intense but quite different and delicious.
I couldn't compare them or say which ones I like better, as they are so different.
I like to add a raw olive, or two, into dips like hummus as an extra "spice", or mix them with seaweed etc in a sauce... Hmmm... I think I know what I'll have for lunch tomorrow :)
Your post made me think of holidays in Greece, the sun, sea... those wonderful ripe tomatoes and incredibly sweet figs rotting on the ground because nobody (except me :)) ) wants them...

annetteandbabes said...

I looked for a very long time to find some great raw olives. These tree ripened black olives are fair trade, organic, raw and only contain a little sea salt and cold pressed organic olive oil. They cost £5.35 for 300g. I no longer buy olive oil as I use the oil that comes with the olives for salad dressings and add a few olives at the same time.

Debbie Took said...

Many thanks for that info, Annette, and a vg idea to use the oil they used for your salad. I'll check out that link when back home (in Thailand right now - durians one pound each!).

Oliveology said...

Hi Debbie,

This is quite a late response to the discussion but I only now discovered your lovely blog.

I just started a small company in the UK called Oliveology. I bring premium quality artisan products from a small organic farm near Sparta,in Greece.

Our olives are naturally cured and they are NOT pasteurised. All olives that come in jars are pasteurised.

Our olives are naturally cured they in organic extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and very little salt and some include a variety of wild aromatic herbs. The process takes from 6 to 9 months and needs constant and dedicated observation.

Our olives come in metal tins which is the best packaging to preserve the olives up to 2 years.

We have even developed a range with no salt at all, a recipe that took us 4 years to develop and that we are very proud of! The unsalted olives have a life of 1 year (for obvious reasons...)

My website and online shop is currently under construction and will be launched before Christmas.

Until then you can check our news and more details about our olives and olive oils (pressed at exceptionally low temperatures to preserve all the nutrients) at our new facebook page.

Looking forward to your comments and feedback.

Best wishes,

Ps you dont have to publish this if you feel it is not appropriate. Thanks

Debbie Took said...

Hi Marianna

Good to hear from you - it's certainly appropriate, as the more sources of raw olives the better!

As an olive lover, and raw fooder, now following a Natural Hygiene-oriented diet where salt is a no-no, I'd be particularly interested in the unsalted ones, and am always available to act as tester :-) (although I don't have vinegar...)

When you have your website, do let me know via

Very best wishes to you, and Oliveology!

Oliveology said...

Thank you Debbie for your wishes and nice comments. I am happy to tell you that we have been developing for some time now, an olive recipe with no vinegar! These will be available around spring time. I will be very happy to send you some to taste.

Marianna (coming soon)

Oliveology said...

Dear Debbie,

I just want to inform you that we have recently launched our website

Find out more about about our early harvest organic olive oils pressed at really low temperatures, unpasteurised raw Kalamata olives and our innovative, health giving olive leaf tea!

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require any further information.

Best wishes, Marianna

Oliveology is about enjoying the finest products, made in harmony with nature. We bring you the produce of Greek artisan farmers who share our passion for the highest quality products that are good to your body, good to the environment and are made with love, care and expertise.

p.s I tried to contact you via the rawforlife website but my enquiry came back undelivered.

Debbie Took said...

Thank you, Marianna, for providing a great update to this article, written two years ago now.

I'll certainly be taking a look at oliveology, as will many readers I'm sure.

Very best wishes.