Spanish tapas dishes might conjure up tasty plates of paella or chorizo, or bowls of hummus and fresh crusty bread. However, there is one ingredient that you will find used time and again in Spanish cuisine, or even served as a pre-dinner snack. It’s a little fruit that packs a mighty big punch: the olive.
The olive has a strong and distinctive flavour that can be an acquired taste. However, the flavour can depend on the variety and ripeness of the olive, and also the way it has been prepared. It is also of course the source of olive oil, and Spanish olive oil (AKA liquid gold) is regarded as the world’s premium cooking oil for purity, versatility and health benefits.
Andalusia in southern Spain is the world’s largest producer and exporter of olive oil. Olives are the fruit of the olive tree and belong to the drupe family of stone fruits, which includes mangoes, cherries and peaches. The olive groves of the Mediterranean countries were first established thousands of years ago when the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula.
Natural history experts reckon that some of the olive trees in this region could be up to 2,000 years old! There are three main varieties of olives that are grown in Spain: the Manzanilla, the Hojiblanca, and the Gordal. The colour of olives can vary from yellow to green, purple or black, depending on how ripe it is when picked or the variety.
Most olives are fermented with brine for up to a year to make them palatable, otherwise they have a very bitter taste. Some olives may then be cured further in lemon juice and herbs or white vinegar. This gives the olives an intense flavour that is perfect for adding an extra dimension of depth and boldness to a whole range of dishes.
In Spain they are a standard bar snack, much like salted peanuts are here in the UK. Olives would probably win in a healthy eating contest however: they are packed with powerful antioxidants and healthy unsaturated fats. In particular, olives are a good source of vitamin E, iron, and copper, and can help to support a low-fat and low cholesterol diet.
You’ll find that many traditional Mediterranean dishes are garnished with olives, including paella, salads, and pasta dishes. You’ll also find them stuffed with garlic or baked in bread, served with cheese or cooked in omelettes. In fact, creative chefs are constantly finding new ways to incorporate the trusty olive in their cooking.
If you have tasted olives in the past and decided they weren’t for you, it’s well worth giving them another chance. Many people who love olives grew into their appreciation after experiencing some professionally prepared tapas food, for example.
The variety of olive can make a difference too: green Castelvetrano olives are milder and more creamy than intense black olives for example. So there you go: the little fruit that helped to put Spain at the heart of world cuisine.
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