Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Fresh olives are practically inedible thanks to their ample endowment of a bitter phenolic substance, oleuropein, and its relatives. The olive tree was first cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean around 5,000 years ago, probably as a source of oil. Olive fermentation may have been discovered when early peoples learned to remove the bitterness by soaking the fruit in changes of water. By Roman times, the soaking water was often supplemented with alkaline wood ashes, which cut the debittering period from weeks to hours. (The modern industrial treatment is a 1–3% solution of sodium hydroxide, or lye.) Alkaline conditions actually break bitter oleuropein down, and also breach the waxy outer cuticle and dissolve cell-wall materials. These effects make the fruit as a whole more permeable to the salt brine that follows (after a wash and acid treatment to neutralize the alkalinity), and help the fermentation proceed faster. Lactic acid bacteria are the main fermenters, though some yeasts also grow and contribute to the aroma. Olives may be debittered and fermented while still green (“Spanish” style, the major commercial type) or once their skin has turned dark with purplish anthocyanins, when they are less bitter.