Working with (free) olives

A neighbor's olive tree
A neighbor’s olive tree

Here in the American desert southwest, a popular tree seems to be the olive. We’ve heard that for reasons of copious pollen, various locales have forbidden planting new, fertile olive trees. But there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of fertile trees in our area. There are many productive trees whose fruits go uncollected, including along the streets of our town.
The fruit seems to mature on the various varieties from November thru February (when these pictures were taken). Like most newcomers, I eagerly plucked some olives from a tree and took a bite only to find the freshly harvested olives are quite bitter and inedible.

Nearby busy Elliot Street has a number of olive trees within walking distance.
Even in mid February, there is a healthy crop.

We tried to cure some olives based on general directions we found on the internet. The basic idea was this: slit each olive on the side and soak them in a brine solution till the bitterness is gone.  This involved swishing the olives in the brine and changing the solution weekly.
Here is what we found: the single slit didn’t seem to be effective in getting the bitterness out of the olive. After 4 or 5 weeks of this brining, the olives were still too bitter to eat.  By about 10 weeks, enough of the bitterness was gone to eat them, but so much of the flavor was gone, we were pretty disappointed.
So we tried something different. We bought a cherry pitter (shown below). The idea was to get the pit out of the olive, increase the surface area for getting the bitterness out, and brine them for a short amount of time. But cherry pits tend to be round whereas olive pits are oblong. We pitted a couple gallons of olives using the displayed pitter and it did an acceptable job. The olives roll one at a time into the pitting area, the plunger pushes the pit down, and on the upward stroke takes the olive with it upward, pulling it out and into the finished pile. You can get a reasonable rhythm going, although occasionally an oblong pit gets stuck in the cherry-pit sized hole.
Another “problem” is that the olives move into their pitting area on their side and the pitting process leaves a gashy looking hole in the side – not the clean hole on top like you see in store-bought olives.

Olive pitter and mason jar with dried olives
Olive pitter and mason jar with dried olives

The pitted olives were brined and edible in about a week and a half. We did this in the refrigerator, and used about a third of a cup of salt and a couple quarts of water, changing the solution one time. The gashed olives were not completely crisp and chewy, though, nor did we want to leave the big container in the refrigerator indefinitely. So once the olives were de-bittered, we left them in the brine, but started drying them in batches.

Brining the pitted olives
Brining the pitted olives

In Arizona we are used to drying fruits and vegetables by laying them in the sun for a day, maybe two. The olives we cut into smaller pieces. Because it is winter and the sun is not so intense, and because we have a solar oven, we have been drying them in batches in the oven, leaving the door open so they dry, not cook. The result is very flavorful dried olives which we add to bread  recipes and spaghetti sauce and anything else that seems appropriate. Note: the olives will still have their natural oil in them, so if you don’t plan on using your dried olive pieces in 6-8 weeks, refrigerate or freeze them so they do not go rancid!

Drying olives in solar oven with door open
Drying olives in solar oven with door open

So what’s next?
I am not so motivated to imitate firm, hole-in-the-top store bought olives — this method and product seems to work fine for our lifestyle, and the price is right. One thing we might do is keep better track of the olive varieties to focus on the trees that give larger, tastier fruit.

But more interesting would be to find a clever way to extract olive oil from the pounds of olives just going to waste on the streets. Pitting, brining, and drying take awhile, but if I could build a trough to drive our car over and have it crush the olives and collect the oil, now that would be fun.