From bright blond orbs and fat green spheres to long purple footballs and withered black ovals – olive varieties come in all shapes and sizes. Whether pitted, pickled or stuffed, this humble Mediterranean fruit has long augmented the diet of the Western world with a tangy flavor and rich flesh. Olive trees over 2,000 years old exist today on the continent of Europe, and the fruit of this oil-producing plant is now famed for the content of its “healthy fat” – quite the desirable oxymoron.
Olives are either picked before ripening (green olives), while ripe (black olives), or somewhere in-between (blond olives). In general, green olives are firmer, denser and slightly more bitter than black olives. Olives are usually cured in some way before eating (salt, vinegar, oil, lye or water) and this process often affects the flavor in some way.
There are actually thousands of types of olive trees – 300 in Italy alone. Travel from Lebanon to Turkey to Greece or Morocco, and you’ll find regional varieties everywhere you go. Still, some popular types of olives have made a stake on the shelves and deli aisles of grocery and health food stores. Use this guide to learn about the most common types of olive varieties.
1. Beldi – A spicy, brine-cured olive from central Morocco, this small black olive is fruity and slightly wrinkled from the salt. Beldis work well in antipasto and to jazz up pasta dishes and salads.
2. Cerignola – Big and green, these tasty olives are often found stuffed with peppers, cheese or capers. They’re harvested in the Puglia region of Italy and can also sometimes be found in black.
3. Kalamata – With a rich and smoky taste, this funky dark purple olive is smooth-skinned and meaty. Kalamatas come from Greece and get their bright flavor from a brine of red wine vinegar.
4. Lugano – Shiny and Italian, this salty olive is often packed with olive leaves and served with hors d’oeuvres. It is medium size and blackish-brown.
5. Manzanilla – Cured in brine, this large purple-green olive hails from Spain but grows well around the world and one of the most popular olives. The crispy flesh and strong flavor gave this olive its name – manzanilla means “little apple” in Spanish.
6. Niçoise – Used in the famous Mediterranean dish Salade Niçoise, this tiny, tree-ripened olive is dark brownish-black. With a delicate flavor due to a soft brining process, these olives are grown around Nice along the French Riviera.
7. Nyon – Grown in the south of France, this small and shiny olive is jet black in appearance with a mild, salty taste. Often dry-cured then packed in olive oil, they leave a pleasantly bitter aftertaste.
8. Picholine – A long little fellow from the south of France, this green olive is mild and medium-sized. It’s crunchy with a tart flavor, a perfect choice for appetizers.
9. Sevillano – This crisp olive from California is cured in Sicilian-style salt-brine and preserved with lactic acid. Large and green, it also is known as a Queen olive.