There are a million different parts of Greek food and cuisine that have made their way into our modern foodie lexicon, but there might not be a staple more intimately associated with Greece than the simple olive. The Greeks love their olives—they even have a really fun olive and olive oil museum in modern Sparta that I told you all about a few weeks ago, and according to this cool article, the Greeks are the biggest olive eaters in the world on a per-person basis—and it’s been a part of our culture and lifestyle for thousands of years. But all olives aren’t created equal! As you might notice next time you’re grocery shopping, there are olives, and then there are Kalamata olives. What’s the difference, you ask? What’s so special about the Kalamata olive? Let me tell you!
First, let’s talk a little about green olives versus black olives. There’s not much of one; it’s the same plant, green olives are just picked before they’re ripe, while they’re still green (duh), and as a result, they’re a little bit more bitter than they are when they’re fully ripe. That doesn’t mean you can just pluck one off a tree and have a snack, though: thanks to a natural compound called oleuropein, fresh olives are so bitter to the point of being inedible. Before you can pop one in your mouth, any kind of olive needs to be cured in brine for periods of a few days to a few months before they have any decent taste worth bringing to the table. The exact method for this process differs depending on where you are in the world, but the result is more or less the same: you get a nice table olive at the end of it.
The difference in Kalamata olives is in both the process and within the fruit itself. (The olive is in fact a fruit, botanically speaking.) They’re special enough that they’re protected by the UN as a Protected Designation of Origin product—that is, there’s something unique about the olives in the Kalamata region, which is centered on the city of Kalamata on the southern coast of the Peloponnese, to the point where you can’t just take any old olive, prepare it the way they do, and call it a Kalamata. The olive trees of Kalamata have leaves that are significantly larger than other varieties, and the olives themselves are particularly big, meaty, and noted for their slightly pointy, almond-like shape. This is partially because unlike most olives, the Kalamata trees are consistently irrigated, meaning they get more water than most. And unlike your standard olive, when Kalamata olives are picked, they’re slit open, and the brine used to cure them usually involves some kind of wine-based vinegar, which not only allows gives it a distinctly fruity flavor, but allows that flavor to seep into the olive itself while it’s curing. Plus, in some places, during the brining process, olive oil and citrus fruit will be packed on top of the fermenting olives, which contributes to that delicious, bright flavor even more.
There’s a of different things you can do with an olive. Eat it straight, put it in a salad, turn it into oil, or stick it in a martini. Just know that not all olives are created equal! As the article I linked to earlier says so beautifully, “‘Black-ripe’ olives are to a hand-picked Kalamata olive what Wonder Bread is to a great loaf of double baked rye.” Think about that next time you’re in the supermarket!