In a History of Food course I once took, the instructor spent a great deal of one class trying to get us to understand what the Conquistadors saw when they arrived in the New World. As detailed in The Columbian Exchange by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., the Spainards beheld an entirely new universe of fruits, tubers, vegetables, and animals. Could we, if asked, be able to fully describe a new food to an awaiting court?
She asked us to each think of our favorite food, and describe it to our classmates — kind of like the game show Password. I’ll be honest and admit that I couldn’t identify many of the dishes described. There was lots of fancy stuff involving parts of animals I had never sampled. I’d never heard of a crayfish, although I don’t think I’m missing much based on my classmate’s description of eating one.
Finally, it was my turn to describe my favorite food, and I managed to stump the class. Try to guess: It grows on a tree and has a pit; it starts as one color and changes to another; it’s salty and has a bit of a twang to it; most importantly, it is only edible after adding poison to it.
The answer is the olive, and I have adored them for as long as I can remember. (The poison is lye, which is used as a curing agent.) Black or green, Spanish, Greek or French, oil- or salt-cured, if a dish of them is near me, soon enough there will be a pile of pits on a nearby plate.
I remember once, when I was in high school, sharing an olive pizza with my Oma (German for grandmother), happily popping the canned California ones into my mouth. “In France,” my Oma began, “we had olive trees.” (I guess they were next to the persimmon trees.) I looked up excitedly from my slice and asked her if they were green or black olive trees. She looked a little surprised at the question. “They all start green, and then change to black,” she said, looking for a moment a little worried that her granddaughter might be a little dim. I’ve told that story many times in the past 17 years, and I am a relieved to say every single person who has heard it has remarked that they had no idea about the color-change.
The recipe here employs both the green and black olives, and lots of them. I think we used nearly an entire jar of pitted black Kalamata olives from Trader Joe’s, plus a whole container of house-made green olives with lemon and garlic from Whole Foods — one of my favorite tastes in the world. The recipe comes from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today, a much-appreciated present from my dad for Chanukah this year. I had been looking for a good olive loaf recipe for a while, and this one is great. There are so many olives in this recipe that they bleed and streak through the dough, making it look more like a marble rye. Two pieces would make a great backdrop for a sandwich of roasted red peppers and shmear of goat cheese. But I have also enjoyed munching it plain, enjoying each salty bite.
As Rich loves baking, I enlisted his help with this recipe during one of our January snow days. Although the recipe says it will yield 5 small loaves, serving 2 to 3 each, Rich made four round loaves of three servings each.
Hanoch’s Olive Bread (From The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan)
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 2 teaspoons for sprinkling
1 package dry yeast (1 scant tablespoon)
1 1/4 cups water
1 to 1 1/2 cups Mediterranean black olives, pitted and chopped
1 to 1 1/2 cups Mediterranean green olives, pitted and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoons melted butter of pareve margarine
1. Put 4 cups of the flour into a mixing bowl and make a well in the center.
2. Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of the water and pour into the well. Incorporate the flour into the liquid, then turn the dough out onto a board and knead until smooth. Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour.
3. Punch down the dough, then work in the olives, salt, oregano, 1/4 cup of water, and remaining cup flour. Knead again for a few minutes, and let rise, covered, in the same bowl for another hour.
4. Divide the dough into 5 portions and form into ovals about 6 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide (or four rounds). Using a sharp knife or razor, cut 3 slits horizontally across the tops and allow to rest, covered, for 20 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease 2 cookie sheets. Brush the tops with the melted butter or margarine and sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of flour. Place the loaves on the cookie sheets.
6. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the breads sound hollow when tapped. Serve warm.
Note: This bread freezes well. Remove from freezer an hour before serving and neat in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes.