Olives are a delicious ingredient native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Their sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy flavours are extremely complex, making them a must-have in any kitchen. They’re incredibly versatile, whether eaten as an appetiser, incorporated into spreads and tapenades, tossed into salads, added to cheeseboards, mixed into slow-cooked casseroles and sauces, or plopped into martinis. Contemporary olive production spans the Mediterranean coast, Latin America, and California.
With so many varieties available, it can be challenging to know which one to choose. To help you out, here are 12 of the most popular types of olives, their characteristics and how to taste them.
Among the most beloved and popular Greek olives, Kalamatas are dark purple to almost black, with shiny and wrinkled skin and a shape that resembles an almond. They have an intense, fruity and slightly salty flavour. They’re typically preserved in red wine vinegar, red wine, or olive oil to impart a rich and smoky taste. Kalamatas go well with salads, pizzas, and tapenades and as a garnish for dishes.
These large olives are harvested in Cerignola, in Italy’s Puglia region. They come in green, bright red, deep purple, and black and are often used as table olives. They are crisp, mildly tart and buttery, with thick, meaty flesh. Their size makes them easily stuffable – they pair well with garlic, cheese, capers, and anchovies.
Niçoise olives are grown in the Alpes Maritimes region of France – this part of the country includes the city of Nice. The olives are small with firm flesh and have a large pit for their size. Niçoise olives are salty and sour, with bitter, intense flavours and a pleasant herbal fragrance with liquorice notes. With origins close to the sea, they’re often paired with seafood and are an essential ingredient in the classic dishes of the French Riviera. They can also be added as a topping on pizza or cooked into sauces.
Named after the Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea where they are grown, Thassos olives are small, black and have very thin skin. Left on the trees until winter, they are naturally cured when picked and only need dry curing on a bed of coarse salt, resulting in a wrinkled, succulent olive that has a wonderfully mellow taste. Intensely fruity, these olives are ideally paired with blue cheese and freshly sliced citrus fruits.
These small, almost black olives are grown in and around the beautiful town of Nyons in the south of France. Distinguished by their large pits and sweet meaty flavour, Nyons olives have earned their own AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – the French system for designating and controlling the geography and quality of wines and other products. You can eat them straight out of the jar or use them to make a tapenade. They’re particularly delicious when drizzled with Provençal olive oil and aromatic herbs like rosemary and thyme.
Picholine olive trees grow in Morocco and the Riviera regions of France and Italy. These almond-shaped green olives are incredibly crisp and firm, with a lemony, buttery, anise-like flavour. They’re aesthetically pleasing and elegant enough to serve as appetisers and enhance hearty stews.
Gaeta olives are named after the town of Gaeta, south of Rome, and are renowned for their unique and delicious taste. These small, oval-shaped olives have dark purple flesh and provide a meaty texture combined with a pleasant blend of tart and salty notes. Gaeta olives are frequently used in salads or chopped up and mixed into tapenades.
Castelvetrano olives, also known as Nocellara del Belice, are a delicacy of the Valle del Belice, Sicily. They have a signature rich, buttery flavour and crisp, meaty texture. They’re perfect for sprucing up salads, pizzas and pasta and adding a special touch to cheese platters and charcuterie boards.
This oval-shaped olive from Sevilla, Spain, has a crisp texture and a slightly smoky, almond-like flavour. Manzanilla olives are green in colour, plump and meaty and are most commonly stuffed with pimiento paste to create the popular stuffed Manzanilla olive or skewered in cocktails. These olives offer a burst of flavour with a mild saltiness and are a staple of Spanish tapas paired with anchovies and sheep’s milk cheese.
Alfonso olives are grown in Chile. They are oval, deep purple, juicy and fleshy, with a slightly sour taste. It’s a variety typically enjoyed with charcuterie and full-bodied red wine.
Arbequina olives are small but big in flavour. These round Spanish olives are commonly eaten as table olives. Moreover, due to their high oil content, they are pressed to obtain one of the best olive oils in the world. With a colour that ranges from light pink to deep orange, these gems bring vibrancy to cheeseboards and spreads.
Grown in Morocco, Beldi olives are a miracle of nature, prized for their unparalleled flavour and aroma. They’re small and shrivelled with a chewy texture. Serve them the Moroccan way: in salads or tagines or with good olive oil and hot peppers.