PICKLING SICILIAN GREEN OLIVES using wood ash (OLIVE SOTTO CENERE)

 

These olives in the photograph were picked from the same tree on the same day. Olives do not have the good manners to ripen all at the same time on the one tree; they will range in colour from green to violet to black (different degree of ripeness) and be of varying sizes.

There are many different recipes for pickling olives butI only have one small tree and in general I pick my olives when they are half ripened – no longer green, but not yet black – a violet colour. I continue to collect them in 2-3 batches over a week and pickle them by first soaking in fresh water and then in brine, but keep each batch separate and put each batch in brine in different jars. It is also not a good idea to process olives of different varieties in the same container even if they are at the same degree of ripeness – different varieties may require differing length of time for pickling and different methods. For example I prefer to cure ripe, black olives in coarse salt and then preserve them in extra virgin olive oil. For both recipes see: How to pickle olives

Sometimes to facilitate the water and brine to penetrate the olives more easily, I use a mallet to bruise them or make 2-3 slits on each olive or prick them with a wine cork and some sewing needles (see this home made implement in the photo above). These are called Olive schiacciate. I would recommend doing this with large olives.

 

These bright green, commercially processed olives in the photo below are called Sicilian olives in Australia. They are picked green and generally pickled with caustic soda (lye), but a kinder to one’s body and more environmentally friendly process is to steep them in a mixture of wood ash and water (but do not expect the same bright green colour).

It is important to use ash from untreated wood – not wood that has been contaminated by paint or treated with chemicals and preferably from a fireplace or wood burning stove in your own home.

I found the following recipe, Olives Vertes a la Picholine, in Preserving, The Good Cook/Techniques and Recipes, Time Life Books. The recipe is taken from a French publication: Encyclopedie Hachette de la cuisine Regionale by Celine Vence.

Once the olives have soaked in the wood ash mixture they are steeped in clear water for another period of time and then stored in brine that has been flavoured with some aromatics: a bay leaf, coriander seeds, fennel sprigs and orange rind. Coriander is not a Sicilian spice and apart from just using salt, you may wish to add just bay leaves and/or replace the coriander with fennel seeds. It you have opportunity to use the stalks of wild fennel, half your luck.

I have never used orange rind in the brine and prefer to use it in the dressing. You may wish to use the olives to make an olive salad.

INGREDIENTS
green olives, 2 k
wood ash, 2 k, mixed with hot water to make a thick runny paste, cool before using
Brine:
water, 2 litres
salt, 200g
bay leaf,1
fennel, sprigs, 2
coriander seeds, 24
orange rind, peeled in strips, from ½ an orange
PROCESSES
In a large bowl or crock mix the olives in the mixture of ash and water.
Leave them 10-12 days. Stir them a few times every day (the stone in the olives will begin to feel loose).
Rinse the olives thoroughly, cover them in clean water and allow them to stand for 10 days, changing the water each day.
Bring the brine ingredients to the boil, boil for 15 minutes, and cool. (If using fresh fennel sprigs or orange peel I would remove these in case they contaminate the olives).
Drain the olives, return them to the crock, and cover with the cold brine. Store for at least a week before using.

I prefer to store my olives in sterile jars; I keep the olives submerged with some plastic netting (from a plastic mesh roll or gutter guard mesh) and always cover my olives with about 5mm layer of olive oil on top – this seals the surface and prevents surface molds.

When I am ready to eat the olives, I drain them and dress them with some extra virgin, olive oil and any of the following aromatics: crushed garlic, some of the green, fresh feathery part of the fennel chopped finely, thin strips of orange or lemon peel, fennel seeds, fresh bay leaves, crushed dry chillies. Steep them in the aromatic mixture at least overnight and keep them in the fridge.

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11 thoughts on “PICKLING SICILIAN GREEN OLIVES using wood ash (OLIVE SOTTO CENERE)”

  1. Mmmm…I’m at the moment curing my first olives ever. I started with the method shown on the SBS series of the Italian Food Safari but 12 day soaking in water (changing every day) did not seem to remove all the bitterness. I am now soaking them in a brine solution. It has been over a week. What do you suggest. As we don’t have fires in North Queensland wood ash is not readily available. Also I have cracked the olives and removed the stone. Thanks for any suggestions.

  2. 12 days of soaking in water will not remove the bitterness. I too, like you have read that this is supposed to happen, but it never has with any of the olives I have soaked.
    1 week is not very long for soaking in brine even if you have cracked them. Your olives may need much longer; keep on tasting them till you are happy. It also depends how bitter they are- I think that home pickled olives always retain some bitterness, but that is part of the appeal.

  3. This is the second time I have processed olives and I have just finished the water stage and am about to put the olives into the brine, the rinsing daily has been great, the aroma of the olives each time I changed the water has been wonderful, I am looking forward to the eating……………………………

  4. Dear Marisa,
    I have been pickling black & green olives for about 5 years now, and have wondered at how the big end of town kept their Sicilian olives green. I tried pinkling them in ice-cold brine for 6 months, that worked but they were still bitter, and the bright green colour faded when I removed them from refrigeration? Nothing was available on-line or in any of the monographs, so 4 weeks ago I pickled a test batch of green Nevadilo’s in 12% food-grade MgCl2 (magnesium chloride) and apart from the few floating up top near the sealant olive oil, they have stayed bright green. I have no idea whether they will taste any good, as I have read that MgCl2 tastes bitter not salty, but this method may be worth considering?

    1. Unfortunately and like you I have searched and searched Italian and English resources for how to keep the green colour in the round Sicilian olives. It is a secret, chemical process that manufacturers use. When pickling at home salt brine is the most common method, some still use the caustic soda and I would imagine that very few would use wood ash. All of these processes do not preserve the colour. I do not know about magnesium chloride and how effective this would be, both as a colour preservative and to remove the bitter taste of the olives that is usually achieved by keeping the olives in water and changing the water for several days before placing them in salt and water. I have read about sodium hydroxide/ lye and how it is the best way to preserve the colour in olives. I guess once you taste your olives you will know if your method is worth considering. Sounds good…you may have solved a deeply held secret. I will be interested to know of your results.

  5. Hi, can you cure black olives in wood ash? I have always done the water/brine option but wanted to experiment with ash. Thanks

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