I remember when I ate my first olive. You can’t say that about most things. Pasta, strawberries, bread, sausages – they’re all things grabbed in a chubby baby hand, squashed, sucked and chewed.
I was visiting my godfather – sitting in the Gloucestershire sunshine one summer. A fourteen year trying to look grown up sipping a glass of red wine, and feeling very worldly. That was when I reached for a little oil-wet olive which was on the table, and popped it in my mouth. Bitter, but not unpleasant. Like stilton and gin and anchovies, the first taste is curious. It leads to a second, and a third, and before you know it, you’re in love.
Early June, I was speaking to a group of other people about olives, and their experiences weren’t dissimilar. “I only ate my first olive six months ago”, confessed one. “Until recently, I didn’t like them at all” another said. And the majority expressed hesitance about cooking with such a strongly-flavoured ingredient, without it overwhelming a dish. Yet theirs had been a quick journey of discovery – because I was at the ‘Olive It’ competition for student chefs.
The challenge set to catering students under 25 was to put together a four-course menu. The canapé, the starter, the main course and the pudding all had to showcase … you’ve guessed it, olives. I was deeply flattered to be one of the five judges, alongside Spanish chef Omar Allibhoy (“The Antonio Banderas of Spanish cooking”), Lisa Jenkins from Caterer and Hotelkeeper, José Souto from Westminster Kingsway College and Ignacio Pérez from Interaceituna.
We first met in Southwark back in May, where we spent an afternoon going through all the menus, to pick the finalists. I’d thought that we might be trawling through pages and pages of tapenade vol au vents, paella and Salad Niçoise (not that there’s anything wrong with any of these!), but the diversity and imagination which went into all the menus blew us all away. Everything from olive-stuffed lamb cutlets, to olive-stuffed soufflés.
Lots of the desserts harnessed olives’ saltiness, and paired them with caramel or chocolate. But there were plenty of wildcards in the pudding section too. Most notably one dessert entitled ‘Fruits of God': Green and black olives stuffed with marzipan, gently fried in honey, ginger, red chillies and flamed with banana liquor. Served with fresh figs, green and black grapes, fresh raspberries and finished with Sabayon glaze and roasted flaked almonds.
The finalists were all invited to a big cook-off. An evening where, (in the midst of wedding dress fittings) I tried each of the 32 dishes served up by the eight competitors. In the kitchen, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife – after all, the prize was epic: a gastronomic weekend for two in Spain worth £4,000, chef’s equipment (£400), and a week-long placement in Omar Allibhoy’s award-winning restaurant, Tapas Revolution.
Every judge had their own favourites. Food is subjective, and each of us had different priorities too. As a lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College, José Souto was particularly keen that the finalists demonstrated a wide range of skills throughout the day, for example boning or filleting and making stocks from scratch, rather than relying on pre-prepared or shop-bought ingredients. As a self-confessed glutton, my focus was largely on the taste!
My favourite canapé was by Georgia Claxton from Boston College – a trio of perfectly-crisp choux pastry balls, each individually stuffed: chicken, fennel and green olive; ricotta, sundried tomato and black olive; and smoked salmon, crème fraîche and tapenade. Classic, and utterly delicious.
My favourite starter was made by Jessica Newbould, another student from Boston College: green olive soufflés, served with black pepper and parmesan, accompanied by a chive and red onion hollandaise sauce. It was a plate of clever, yet comforting, warm and delicious food. And when I say that I could have eaten double…perhaps triple, I’m not exaggerating!
There was tough competition when it came to the main courses. Olive-stuffed rack of lamb, and venison and fish. A Roman-esque spread. My favourite though was by Aston Knight from Accrington and Rossendale College: Moroccan chicken with lemon, olives and dried apricot, served over a chipotle sweet potato. I am aware of my bias toward slow-cooked dishes. But Aston’s tagine was just spot-on, and slow-cooking the olives allowed them to developed a rounded, fleshy-fruitiness. A Middle Eastern style of cooking olives which produced very different flavours to the traditional European dishes.
Though all the judges had different favourites throughout the competition, the pudding was unanimous, the only 10/10 on the day: ‘Olive shortbread with olive and fig ice cream, black olive and honey puree’. The biscuits were stacked in a millefeuille-style tower, with whipped cream between each layer. They looked like little speckled garibaldis, only the biscuit was extraordinarily soft and buttery, with salt bites of black-olive. The ice cream was like nothing I’ve ever come across before. I’ve heard of David Lebovitz’ olive oil ice cream. But never an ice cream which uses actual chunks of olive. It was so delicious, and such a clever way of showcasing the diversity of the humble olive.
There were platters of Iberico ham from Bar Tozino, and plenty of cava laid out for the finalists’ families who came to support them at the cook off and sample the menu they’d created. For many entrants, the competition signified the end of their catering courses. And when the winners were announced, I clocked a couple of (rightly) proud parents reaching for their hankies. A big congratulations to Jessica Newbould, who was the overall winner, with the menu below.
CANAPE: Monkfish with green olive pesto spoons, served with black olive tapenade brushettes of feta stuffed green olives
STARTER: Green olive soufflés, served with black pepper and parmesan, accompanied by a chive and red onion hollandaise sauce
MAIN: Chicken supreme, stuffed with olive, tomato, garlic, almond and citrus and served with a roasted spiced red pepper coulis on a green vegetable panache with sweet potato crisps.
DESSERT: Dark chocolate olive tart, served with pistachio ice cream and a pineapple, basil and olive compote
This was the first of an annual Olive It competition, so if you’re a young chef, and you feel inspired to enter next year, then follow Olive It on Facebook to stay updated: https://www.facebook.com/OliveitUK