The Lucques Olive: A Langedoc Tradition Comes to America

Even as I was curing olives for the first time, in 2009, I knew I’d do it differently in 2010. Cured olives, like breads and wines, are wonderful partly for their variety. I love them green or black, big or little, salty and shriveled, bitter, sour, herbed, or oiled. Both ripeness and curing method, I knew, determined a cured olive’s look and taste. But how much difference did cultivar make? I wasn’t sure.

The olives I ordered in 2009, from M&CP Farms of Orland, California (www.greatolives.com), were green Sevillanos, which grow as large as an inch across and have firm flesh that you must chew off the pit. They were delicious both lye-cured and long-brined. But when M&CP offered another variety, Lucques, in 2010, I ordered them without hesitation.

As soon as I slit open the box the FedEx man brought me, I knew I’d never confuse Lucques olives with Sevillanos. Whereas the Sevillano olive is oval, the Lucques is long, slender, and slightly crescent-shaped, with a pointed tip. The unripe Sevillano is pale green, but the unripe Lucques is bright green like a Gravenstein apple.

Although the Lucques probably originated in Italy, the variety is an old favorite in Languedoc, especially around a village called St Jean de la Blaquière, where in the 1990s the local co-op cured two hundred tons per year. Although St Jean’s olives are now cured in nearby Clermont-l’Herault, St Jean still hosts the annual Fête de la Lucques.

Each autumn, all France awaits the cured green Lucques olives, beloved for their light, nutty, sweet taste; their meaty flesh, which comes away easily from the pit; and their color, which remains bright green even after curing. Most of the olives are available just a few weeks after the September picking, because they are treated with lye, which quickly eliminates all bitterness.

Unsure how best to cure my Lucques olives, I managed to track down two recipes from St. Jean de la Blaquière, one for the standard commercial cure, with lye, and one for the family-style long-brine method. I cured a gallon each way.

The lye-cured olives were ready less than three weeks later. They were indeed sweet and nutty and mild, and they were so good that they were gone in a month. I’d used no herbs or garlic, and nobody missed these embellishments. With only salt to enhance their flavor, the olives were irresistible.

A second gallon of Lucques olives got the slow cure—a fresh-water soak, with frequent changes, for fifteen days, followed by immersion in a light brine for four days and a medium-strong brine thereafter. These olives are still sitting in salt water, again without flavorings, in a warm closet. They are bitter, but every time I taste one it’s less bitter than the last. By the first of April, I predict, my family will start on our second Fête de la Lucques. I can hardly wait.

Cure Your Own Olives

olives close upTo my regret, I never got around to curing the fruit of the huge old olive trees on my parents’ California ranch, which they have long since sold. Like many other gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, I now have my own little olive tree, of the hardy Arbequina variety, and I await the first crop with greedy anticipation. Last year, though, I got to wondering: In the age of the Internet and overnight delivery, did I have to wait? Could I buy some fresh olives to cure at home?

In fact, I could. For less than thirty dollars, I had ten pounds of green Sevillanos delivered to my door in early September. I looked them over carefully; you don’t want to cure olives that are bruised or otherwise damaged. Nearly all were perfect. I grabbed my copy of the University of California’s Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling (ANR publication 8267) and began to study up.

There are many ways to cure olives. The best choice depends on the variety, whether the olives are green or ripe, how you want to store them, and how long you’re willing to wait before you eat them. I chose the method that Olives calls Sicilian-style—that is, simple brining—for most of the olives. For the rest, I chose a lye cure followed by a shorter brining.

For the Sicilian-style olives, I filled two glass jars, one gallon-size and one 3-quart-size, with olives, hot peppers, chopped garlic, bay leaves, and fennel umbels, and then I added a brine made of 1 cup pickling salt, 1 gallon water, and 1 pint red wine vinegar. The remaining 2 quarts of olives I treated with lye—Red Devil, which you might use to clean out a kitchen drain—mixed with water. The olives soaked in the lye water for about 12 hours, and then I repeatedly rinsed them and soaked them in pure water for about 30 hours, to remove the lye. At this point the olives had lost their natural bitterness, but they still needed to ferment to develop their flavor and texture. I mixed up a brine with the same ratio of salt to water as before, but this time I left out the vinegar. Presumably because lye kills the lactic-acid-forming bacteria on the olives, the recipe told me I needed to add a starter. I used a little brine from a jar of unpasteurized fermented cucumber pickles.

Two months later, the lye-treated olives were already tender, but they also tasted of dill and cucumbers from the pickle brine. So, though the recipe didn’t call for seasonings, I added hot pepper, garlic, bay, and thyme. A week or so later, these olives were delicious, and my husband and I started eating and sharing them.

Now we have finished off the lye-treated olives and are waiting for the Sicilian-style ones, which have lost most of their bitterness. I actually like the slight bitterness that remains, but the texture is still a little too chewy. We’ve just reached the minimum curing time for these olives—about four months. We’ll probably wait another two weeks or so before we start eating them.

Olives includes recipes for other curing methods, and none of these methods is more complicated than the two I tried. Curing olives, like making other sorts of pickles, is not only possible for people who don’t grow their own; it’s also easy.