The olive harvest in the Algarve begins after the first autumn showers. In the south of Portugal, the “maçanilha” variety is the one most used to crush because it is already big, fleshy and practically mature, at the end of September, beginning of October. The olive is harvested whilst still green and crushed with principle, precision and some tricks. Mar d’Estórias wanted to discover how to prepare crushed olives so that they can be savoured before Christmas, as a snack or an appetizer.
We spoke with Albino Santos, from Bensafrim, who explained that after being harvested and washed the olives are crushed lightly with a wooden block or a stone, preventing the olive stone from breaking. He warns that “it has to be with a wooden block or stone because if a metallic object is used the olives will become black”.
The olives are then soaked in salted water for about a week to lose their acidity and bitterness. There are those who change the water every day in which the olives are submerged or scald them with hot water on the first day to accelerate this process, however Albino says that “every two days is enough.” If these olives are for immediate consumption, “a handful of salt will suffice to sweeten and prevent them becoming soft”; if it is intended to preserve them longer, it is necessary to make a brine.
To determine the ideal salt concentration, Albino uses a curious trick dated from the sixteenth century: “I put an egg into the brine, when it starts to float I know that there is enough salt.” He adds that “it also works with a potato.” Another curious thing about this preparation ritual is the fact that “we can’t touch the olives with our hands when they are in the brine or they become soft.” In addition, it is essential to lay a net, so the olives are entirely underwater otherwise they will rot.
A secret shared by Albino is to “rinse the olives with water from a fountain, stream or bottle” before seasoning them. He states that if you use “tap water, perhaps because it has too much chlorine, the olives take on a strange taste.”
There are many who spice the brine, however, the principle used here is to do it after, with garlic cloves, oregano and bay leaves. There are many seasoning deviations according to individual taste: many add lemon, orange, piri-piri or “nêveda” (a spice with a strong peppermint scent known in the Algarve as “olives herb”).
In Monchique, the crushed olives are practically promoted to main dish status presented on festive days or on pig slaughterings. Incidentally, this dish is even named “pig slaughtering olives”! Here, fry onions, are add to undercooked carrots and crushed olives. The truth is that in the past they served this alone with a piece of bread for lunch or dinner for more modest people, however “still today I like crushed olives with a piece of bread and I don’t need anything else”, comments Albino.
These wise details enrich the Algarvian gastronomy and transform these olives into an indispensable snack at our table.