Beyond Black and Green

Grazing Austin's Olive Bars

By Pableaux Johnson

Up until a few years ago, olives were traditionally encountered on combination pizzas or in 1930s RKO movies depicting martini-swilling urbanites. One rarely found them in real life, and when you did they were available in only two types: green and black. That one jar of Spanish olives stuffed with lazy, discolored pimento strips probably spent 20 years on your mother's refrigerator door, while pizza parlor California olive slices suspiciously resembled plumbing supplies. But go to any coast of the Mediterranean and you'll find whole subcultures devoted to the fleshy little salt bombs. Like our scrub mesquite, olive trees flourish in the rocky, parched soil that surrounds the inland sea, so olives figure heavily in Mediterranean cuisine. Olives, especially marinated ones, satisfy two of the basic food cravings -- salty and sour -- and so make the perfect stand-alone appetizer. Bartenders in Spain and France serve snack bowls full of olives to encourage consistent thirst and competitive pit-spitting -- the international bar sport of kings. Given half a chance, cooks from Morocco to Greece to Egypt throw olives into their distinguished dishes.

The recent visibility of Mediterranean cuisine and the return of nuevo/retro martini chic has brought the olive back to our collective attention. Designer cocktails now come garnished with swank three-olive spears. Greek salads or lighter Italian pasta dishes appear as flavors of the month and give the health-conscious ample excuse to consume more garlic, olives, and red wine. Elaborate menu descriptions refer to specific olive types such as Kalamata, Niçoise, and Amphissa, but most of us still think of them as pretty names for female triplets.

If forced to categorize the olive, most folks would place it in either the "vegetable" or "garnish" food group. In actuality, however, the olive is a naturally bitter fruit that requires a multi-step curing process to become edible -- first soaked in alkaline solution, then fermented in brine or salt to reduce bitterness and tenderize the flesh. After curing, some olives marinate in vinegars or herb mixtures to give them signature taste characteristics. They vary in color from an unripe pale green through pinkish-brown to fully ripened jet black, and come in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

If you cook or mix drinks at home, the best way to learn about olives involves sampling different types -- directly out of the barrel, if possible. Luckily, Austin has several groceries that carry a wide selection of olives and encourage customers to graze and experiment. An average olive bar assumes that you'll buy what you need, and usually presents the product floating happily in five-gallon buckets of brine or vinegar marinade. Visiting an olive bar allows you to taste the different types, compare textures, and then buy smaller amounts for good prices, thus reducing the number of jars on your fridge door. They're the perfect place to start your self-study of the olive.

Central Market (4001 North Lamar) contains the largest of Austin's olive bars, tucked away in the trademark gourmet labyrinth between the deli and cheese sections. Central Market displays about 30 different olive types, including many French and some pre-pitted varieties. Walking the barrels here tends to be educational, since each tub is well-marked with a short description of color, nation of origin, and possible serving suggestions. It's a serve-yourself operation that isn't particularly conducive to grazing, but allows you to pick your own mix for a flat rate of $5/pound. While the prices tend to be on the high side -- about a dollar a pound higher than other places -- you get the advantage of seeing and comparing a very wide variety in a single stop.

* Pitted Kalamata: One of the more popular black olives, commonly found on Greek salads. They have a pronounced, powerful olive flavor and high salt content. And since there are no pits, you can knock 'em back like candy.

* Gaeta: Plump, dark purple Italian olives with very tender, almost melt-away, texture. On the naturally sour side, but cured and stored in brine.

* Provençal: A medium-green French olive, marinated in fragrant herbs de Provence (a mix of basil, lavender, thyme, fennel, savory, rosemary). The herbs hit you in the nose first, followed by the olive and salt flavors. Interesting balance of herbal aroma and olive taste.

* Picholine: A slender, full-flavored green olive from the south of France. Sweet (as olives go) with a nice, crunchy texture.

Phoenicia Deli & Bakery (2912 South Lamar) operates a full-service olive bar, with individual prices marked for each of 16 varieties. Just like at most ice cream joints, the staff will get you samples on request. Phoenicia offers good prices on Greek and Lebanese olives ($3-5/pound, depending on type) and a wide range of imported Mediterranean specialties. If you need to assemble a quick meal to go with the olives, pick up some hummus, tabbouleh, and freshly baked pita bread for a quick snack tray.

* Black Alfonsos: Soft-skinned Chilean olive with very tender flesh. Similar in texture to a small plum. Cured in wine vinegar for a satisfying sour/salt rush.

* Phoenicia House Blend: Lebanese green olives marinated in herbs and packed in olive oil. Heavy on the garlic. After you finish the olives, use the oil for cooking or salad dressings.

* Green Greek cracked: Crunchy flesh flavored with lemon and stored in vinegar. Good bowl or antipasto olive.

* Moroccan oil-cured: These black olives have a wrinkled, leathery surface from the dry salt curing process. Since they retain more of their natural bitterness, oil-cured olives work better when cooked than eaten straight.

Austin Gourmet Market (1931 East Oltorf), though not as large as the other operations, gets high praise for their spiced olives. They prepare and package their own olives, which can also be found in local supermarkets and gourmet shops. A simple refrigerated deli counter holds about 10 different varieties, but the counter staff cheerfully encourages you to taste all you want.

* Spicy: Cracked green olives in a powerful chili pepper/vinegar marinade the consistency of tomato sauce. The afterburn sits on your tongue for a spell and hurts real good. Toss with pasta for a quick pepper fix.

* Jalapeño Stuffed: Huge, crisp green California olives cured Sicilian-style and stuffed with pickled jalapeño. Both flavors remain distinct and complement each other nicely without either dominating. A great alternative martini olive or accompaniment for tequila.

* Garlic-Stuffed: Always save the best for last. Another good martini olive, it's the same California Colossal olive stuffed with a pickled garlic clove. If you like garlic, you'll want to inhale a pound in a single sitting. Especially good during the cold and flu season, but if you're in close quarters, make sure everyone gets a taste. n

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