It’s rare that you remember your first acquaintance with new food – I don’t remember my first cheese sandwich or my first sip of orange juice.
But I do remember eating my first olive. I was about 14 years old –round the same time that I decided to like stilton and red wine.
It’s not unusual for a British palette to take a while to develop a taste for these strong flavours– interestingly though, I heard a story about an Indian girl who was adopted by a British couple, and would gorge herself on olives to get a hit of the strong, salty flavours her palette craved.
Olives are a grumpy, old, gnarldy fruit. While there’s something modern and appealing about a plump, symmetrical strawberry or a bunch of sharp, seedless grapes, the olive really does look like it’s been around forever. And it has.
It was the star ingredient in Apicius’ 2,000-year old cookbook. It was used as fuel to light the earliest Olympic Torch. Dammit, the trees alone can live 1,500 years, which makes tortoises seem like they’re copping out early.
Perhaps it’s because they’ve been around for so long – or perhaps it’s an inferiority complex, being an angry little wrinkly fruit, that the olive constantly feels the need to reinvent itself and sex up its image: slinky bottles of expensive extra virgin olive oil, sheeshy little tapas bars, and, (most glamorously), whirling round a martini glass.
Luckily for the olive though, it’s got a new ambassador. And he couldn’t be doing a better job upping their street cred. Described by Gordon Ramsay as the ‘Antonion Banderas of cooking’, the dark, sexy Spaniard, Omar Allibhoy, has teamed up with Olives from Spain and is on a mission to big up olives to the Brits.
So, imagine my excitement when I was invited to the wonderful Food at 52 cooking school for an evening’s cooking during which Omar promised to expand my olivey horizons– putting them in chocolate, battering them, drizzling them in honey…
So, let me talk you through what we cooked - starting with the first dish of battered olives - a fiddly, but extraordinarily tasty smackerel.
Now, I was a little worried about breadcrumbing and deep-frying olives (the amount of cooking I’ve been up to has led to me being a bit flubbly around the edges) but Omar assured us that the nutritional value of olives made it just about ok…
(interestingly, 100g of olives contin 150 calories while 100g of nuts are 567 kcal; 100g crisps are 525 kcal; 100g popcorn are 541kcal) – so with relatively small amounts of fattiness in the olives, then why the hell not stick them in a crispy batter…then drizzle them with honey….?!
Fried Queen Olives with Manchego
Serves 4 – 6
200g pitted queen olives
50g Manchego cheese
2 tbls flour
1 large egg
4 tbls breadcrumbs
Mild Spanish olive oil for frying
A drizzle of honey
Open tin of queen olives and drain the brine, taste and if too salty wash in cold water. Drain in a colander and pat dry.
Finely chop manchego cheese until is resembles breadcrumbs; then mix the cheese with 1 teaspoon of the breadcrumbs.
Stuff the olives with the cheese and breadcrumbs by pushing in the mixture with the back of a teaspoon into the olives.
Once all the olives are stuffed then sprinkle all over with flour. Whisk the egg and egg wash the olives making sure they are fully coated. The do the same with the breadcrumbs and put aside.
Heat oil (enough to cover the olives) in a small pan on a high temperature. Wait until the oil is hot (test by dropping an olive in and it should fry quickly in around 5 seconds). Once the oil is hot enough, fry in batchers of about 7 olives until golden. This should take less than 90 seconds.
Pat dry on kitchen paper. Put on a plate and drizzle with the honey. Serve!
Next, we were grilling sardines and asparagus for the antipasto - but with about 10 of us in the class and just one oven at the end of the (exceptionally beautiful, and very homey) kitchen, I was interested how we’d be doing it. The answer was to put some gas-canister stoves on the demonstration table with an iron griddle on top.
Omar pointed out that you can find a way to cook most things on a camping stove – his summer had, in fact, been one big road trip round Britain, where he offered to cook Spanish food on his camping stove for anybody who wanted to join him. Inspired.
For the vinaigrette;
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cleaned sardines
a hand full of whitebait
a bunch of asparagus
cooked artichoke or palm hearts
4 large ripe tomatoes
a selection of olives.
(flour and oil if using whitebait)
First prepare the vinaigrette; cut a clove of garlic in half, length ways, and rub it around the inside of a large glass bowl. Next, in a small blender or with a whisk, blend together the remaining vinaigrette ingredients to form an emulsion and add to the bowl.
If using whitebait heat up a litre of vegetable oil in a large pan to about 200 c. If you do not have a thermometer then test with a cube of white bread, it should turn golden within 15 seconds.
Heat a griddle pan while you oil and season the asparagus. When hot enough cook the asparagus until it has charred stripes and has softened a little. One done keep the pan hot and cook your oiled and seasoned sardines.
Now put all the other ingredients on a large platter, the arrangement is up to you, but it must be spectacular!
Brush the tomato, artichoke hearts and asparagus with the dressing and find a place on the platter for them.
If you are using whitebait put them in the hot oil, in batches if necessary, until they are golden. Drain briefly on kitchen towel and arrange on the platter with the sardines, with a slice or two of lemon.
Finally toss the salad leaves in the vinaigrette and arrange with the olives.
The next two dishes were a fish and meat main course. Such flavoursome, Mediterranean food, I almost forgot about the dropping temperature outside – in the balmy kitchen, with a glass of rioja in hand, and beautiful Spanish flavours wafting round the room, I was definitely feeling more of a Catalonian than a St Pancras-vibe.
As a short aside, I’ve always associated olives with Italy or Greece, so you might be interested to know that Spain actually accounts for 30% of the global olive harvest, with Andalusia in the south producing 77% of the total olives grown in the country – (such a sucker for a marketing spiel if it’s delivered by a hot chef!)
Pan Fried Sea Bass with Spanish Olives
4 fillets of sea bass
1 tin pitted purple Spanish olives
1 tin piquillo peppers
Handful of caper berries
100ml Spanish Olive oil
4 garlic cloves
1 small glass of dry Fino wine
Some cracked black pepper
A few sprigs of parsley
Wash and pat dry the sea bass fillets and put to one side to use later. Open the tin of piquillo peppers, have them and remove any seeds. Drain the caper berries and olives and also put aside.
Peel and thinly slice the garlic cloves, fry over a medium heat until golden with half of the olive oil. Add the piquillo peppers and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the purple Spanish olives and caper berries and sauté again.
Season with salt and pepper and add a splash of fino wine. Let the alcohol burn off and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.
Preheat a non stick pan over a high heat and pour in a splash of olive oil. Pan fry the sea bass fillets skin side down until ¾ done, turn over, season the skin with some salt flakes and cook for one more minute.
Serve on a bed of the Spanish olives accompaniment and place the sea bass on top, drizzle a bit of olive oil to finish off.
Braised Chicken with Olives
50ml Spanish Olive oil
8 free range chicken thighs
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 Onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon flour
1 glass of dry white wine
200g pitted green olives
Salt and pepper
2 sprigs rosemary
Small glass of water
Heat a large pan and then brown the chicken thighs with a bit olive oil. Skin side down first, as they release a bit of fat which helps caramelise all the following ingredients properly.
Once both sides are golden, set them aside and start frying thinly sliced garlic and onion.
When golden add the flour and stir constantly for 1 minute so that the flour toasts evenly and doesn’t result in a doughy flavour.
Put the chicken back in the pan and add the rosemary and wine. Stir to dissolve the flour properly and reduce the wine by half.
Now add the pepper, water and olives and braise for about 20 minutes until the chicken has tenderised and all the ingredients have come together in a juicy and rich sauce. Season to taste and serve.
The final course tapped into the sea salt caramel trend that’s infiltrating pudding menus round the country. An olive and chocolate truffle. Delicious. As someone who isn’t very good with very chocolatey chocolate, the olive addition gave the petit four a wonderful salty bite – a great way to finish a meal…and a great new take on the traditional chocolate truffle.
Spanish Olive Chocolate Truffles
200g 70% good quality dark chocolate
50g black olive tapenade
200g double cream
1 orange zest
Place a medium sized pan with cream in it on a low heat. Once it is almost boiling, turn off the heat and add the chopped dark chocolate, orange zest and the olive paste. Mix well with a spatula until you have s smooth texture.
At this point he mix should be warm and it is now that we add the chopped butter to give that extra shine and silkiness to the truffles.
Cover with cling film and cool in the fridge for a few hours for the mix to harden up.
Once cold, make little balls with your hands, using the cocoa powder to cast them.
Place back in the fridge so that they are cold as they take longer to melt in your mouth!
…just before I wind up this monsterously long post, I want to quickly thank John from Food at 52 for being such a wonderful host, and inviting us into his beautiful, Georgian, family home (which doubles up as the most stunning cooking school).