/The Great Olive Curing Experiment of 2012

The Great Olive Curing Experiment of 2012

On Saturday November 10, my sleep deprived friend chef John Regefalk and I stole liberated olives from the trees in front of San Gregorio near the Circus Maximus. In all, we harvested more than 6kg (13 lbs) of olives, to which John added a few hundred additional grams from a 151-year-old tree on Via dei Fori Imperiali. Over the course of the past month, John has diligently nurtured these olives, transforming them from bitter, inedible fruit into delectable, edible snacks. What follows is John’s curing diary, a series of hilarious and occasionally coherent emails about the curing process*:

November 11, 2012 at 3:03 PM

First results should be tastable when you’re back in town. So many different recipes! But I noticed that the ripe ones are not really used a lot. Many of the recipes use green ones. But from the tree on via dei Fori Imperiali, which was filled with ripe black fruit, I’m definitely making kalamata style brined ones. Seems like ripe olives might get too soft in the lye.

November 11, 2012, at 8:15 PM

Ok, so I currently have 3kg of each green and black ones in lye. then small batches of cracked green olives, dry salt cured black ones and kalamata-style black ones.

The ones with crack in them will probably be addictive!

Now we will watch a movie and I will probably fall asleep halfway thru. Though the olives wont be done until 2 am so I need to wake up again later.

November 14, 2012 2:38 AM


just tasted the olives. the black ones (once upon a time black) showed a complete lack of bitterness, and they had a hint of butteriness instead. But they actually don’t taste like anything since they are without salt so far. The green ones that spent time in lye, were slightly different, less buttery and unfortunately still contained lye. Which taste like shite, or at least like strong soap. but I guess a couple of more days and they’ll be fine.

I then tried the “kalamata-style” which have only been in cold water. Beeewwwwwuuu…..like straight from the tree. Likewise for the green cracked ones. So far the winner is: LYE!

November 16, 2012 2:23 AM

I have big hopes for the new olives. Tomorrow I’ll bring a small batch to work to LYE them (they need stirring every hour – kind of like having a small baby. I guess.)
They are so mature, soft, fatty, juicy, plump.

Hope to get this friggin’ soap flavor out of the olives before you get home, or do you have any good wine pairing with soap?

I should have managed to Frankenfacture an edible olive around 10 days from now.

November 24, 2012 4:29 AM

So I tried a few of the olives. Then I waited a few hours before I wrote this mail to you. Just to be sure I wasn’t dead. Or something similar.

The cracked green ones in vinegar and spices are good, of course. How could they not be? Salt, vinegar and garlic is a winning combination every time. Both for scaring off vampires and pickling olives.

I tried some of the black ones “nature”, the water cured ones. They have not yet found their way into brine since they have a slight bitterness still remaining, but hey, we can take that right? We have grownups’ palates! Tomorrow I will drown them in brine. I have big hopes for the small black ones. They are firm, oily and have a pleasant olive flavor. The big black ones on the other hand already taste like the Spanish black pitted cocktail olives, which I cannot really feel is a positive thing.

Then we have the really interesting ones! The salt cured black ones. Since they do not pass thru neither lye nor water baths, they retain ALL of their original flavor, including bitterness. Not for kids! But they were actually very good! (This may be due to the high content of small yellow worms that I found dead and shriveled up among their former olive homes).

Furthermore I think something must have gone wrong in the sorting and grading department after picking and prior to pickling since all batches are a mess of different sizes, colors and ripenesses. But hey, if you eat 4-5 olives you’re bound to get a good one! Laziness is human.

Tomorrow more tastings.

Game over! Now bed!

November 25, 2012 2:29 AM

Olive report 531:

So, I come home late a saturday night after work, firmly decided to taste a few of the newly brined black olives.

Entering the kitchen I see a lovely plate of charity leftovers from an Italian turkey thanksgiving dinner, complete with cranberries, stuffing, brussel sprouts and a mind-blowing apple sauce! No need for more details. I didn’t touch the olives.
Hope they’ll make it til tomorrow.

November 26, 2012 3:57 AM

Subject: Ohnonotthatolivecrazyguyagaincloggingupmyinbox

So, I had another taste of the olives! Things are proceeding as planned!! They no longer taste like licking insect repellant off a dirty car tire. They are now edible! Even if maybe not at their prime yet. The water cured ones will be taking home the trophy I think! Just think about what simple water combined with this miracle product called “salt” can do! Salt turns humble fish roe into caviar and bottarga, it turns a fatty, hairy pig’s jowl into guanciale and it turns a fresh head of cabbage into stinky sauerkraut. Don’t we just love it!?

We now proved that it can also change the nature of locally grown and very honestly stolen olives from inedible oleuropein-loaded small packets of bitterness to a palatable, rich and flavorful snack!

Now if I just had someone to do the harvesting for me…someone that’s always out and about, someone that knows just about every olive tree in Rome…maybe a good climber… Any volunteers? 🙂

Take care!


John dropped these bags off for me to taste last week and I have been sampling and tasting all weekend long. They are all very different, due both to their species and curing methods. I’m still deciding on a favorite!

Green lye cured olives from the Celio in a light brine. These were green when we picked them.

Black lye cured olives from the Celio. These were black when we picked them, but they lost their color during lye curing. They are preserved in a light brine.

Black lye cured olives from the Celio. These were black when we picked them, but they lost their color during lye curing. They are kept in a vinegar brine.

Cracked green olives from the Celio in a vinegar brine with oregano and garlic.

Black water cured olives from the Celio in vinegar brine.

Water cured black olives from a 151 year old tree on Via dei Fori Imperiali. The tree was donated from Israel to the city of Rome to commemorate the 150 year anniversary of Italian Unification, which was celebrated in 2011 (nevermind that the unification process wasn’t actually completed until 1870).

Black lye cured olives from the same 151 year old tree mentioned above. These were jet black when John picked them, but they lost most of their color during lye curing. They are kept in a light brine.

Salt cured black olives from the Celio. These are not yet ready to eat and bear the warning: watch out for worms. Their yellow shriveled corpses are visible amongst the salt grains.

*Curing recipes adapted from the University of California Davis Agriculture and Natural Resources, “Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling”. Publication 8267 (2007). View PDF.

2017-02-17T15:16:58+00:00 December 4th, 2012|Categories: Culture, Food & Wine, Rome & Lazio, Rome on a Budget|10 Comments


  1. Royscs December 4, 2012 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Le vorrei assaggiare anche io queste olive!

  2. maryann December 4, 2012 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    this was a gelight to read. photos of the trees would have been fun!

  3. maryann December 4, 2012 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    that would be ‘delight”

  4. Nathalie ( @spacedlaw ) December 4, 2012 at 7:39 pm - Reply

    I never realized there was such a potentially sexual aspect to olives (as illustrated buy the “so mature, soft, fatty, juicy, plump” comment).
    I note the emails never talk about losing hair and skin to lye…

  5. Irene December 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    The crazy olive guy is a genious. I tasted some today, they were good! And I’m still alive!

  6. Katie December 4, 2012 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    maryann you can catch a glimpse of the trees here http://www.parlafood.com/foraging-rome-olives-the-edible-city/

    nathalie i admit i was too busy today to record tweets and what’s app correspondence too:( the hair loss messages are indeed priceless.

  7. Katie December 4, 2012 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    @roy se non ce le ha john, te le do io le olive. fammi sapere!

  8. janie December 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    I love this post! I tried curing olives last fall in a water/vinegar brine and it took months and in the end I wasn’t thrilled with them! Would love to taste yours.

  9. semsa denizsel December 6, 2012 at 10:08 am - Reply

    Katie and John,

    You know in Ayvalık, in Turkey on the Agean coast,we never use lye or any sort of chemicals in home-curing. You just need salt and time. Olive curing is not a thing to be hurried. We leave the chemicals to commercial manufacturers.

    At home, you just wash the olives, sort them to their grades and start filling the tins with a layer of olives, then a layer of coarse salt, then again olives. It goes up till the tin is packed. Mind you, you don’t use much salt, just a sprinkling of at each layer. It effects the end result. You can always add a few slices of lemon, not too much, you don’t want acid in your olives. And also you can add some aromatic herbs if you fancy them in the final taste.

    Then you put your olive tins in a cool environment like a larder, not a fridge. And each day you turn your tins up-side down. One day it becomes up-side down, next it stands on its bottom, it goes on like this for a month. You should try doing this at approximately same time each day for a month. You start turning them once a week. They should be ready at the end of your second month. You just open the tins and taste them to see if they are ready to be eaten. If they are not, you just keep turning the tins.

    If they are ready, you just wash them, not soak, dry them thoroughly and put them in jars and keep them cool. Do not add any additional oil onto them until you decide to put them on the table. For serving you can do whatever you like.

    All the best olive curing in the world!


  10. dymnyno December 8, 2012 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    We just finished picking about 8 tons of olives which we used to press for oil. I always make some preserved olives too, I am not a big fan of the lye method. I just make a brine to pour over the olives (in a large jar) cover and forget about them for about 6 months. You can add garlic or other flavors to the brine. Then after 6 months, rinse and they’re ready to eat. Best with a little olive oil. By the way, those little worms mean that the olives you used are infested with the olive pest! Last year we had to pick the whole crop (8 tons) and take it to the dump!

Leave A Comment