Fried Olives A Surprisingly Delicious Pugliese Treat
“X Friggere,” in all caps, read the sign over the freshly picked olives on a market stall in the Pugliese town of Martina Franca: “For frying.”
Olives for frying? Fresh from the tree?
It was the weekly open-air market, and the plump, black olives were going like — well, I could say they were going like hotcakes, but hotcakes might not sell so well in Martina Franca. In any case, they were selling fast and furiously.
If, like me, you’ve had the unhappy experience of biting into a freshly picked olive right off the tree, you’ll know nothing compares with the horrible, bitter, astringent taste that fills your mouth. Ptew! It’s an automatic rejection — you spit it as far as it will go, the only reaction possible. And then you wonder who on earth was the first person to discover that lusciously sweet olive oil could come from such yucky fruit.
So what’s with fried fresh olives? I knew what I was doing, and I bought 2 kilos, almost 4½ pounds, at a fire-sale price of 4 euros — about $5.20 a kilo.
Fried olives from a top chef
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I knew only because I had experienced fried olives just the previous evening with chef Domenico “Mino” Maggi and his wife, Carole, at their engaging trullo complex in the nearby town of Locorotondo. Along with Martina Franca, this is the heart of the Valle d’Itria, in the center of Puglia’s long peninsula, where the curious domed trulli, built of layered slabs of local white limestone and looking like nothing so much as a set for “The Hobbit,” are the architectural feature of note. Mino and Carole actually live in their own trullo amid a cluster of 10 — the others are rented out as self-catering apartments.
Mino, who is a noted chef, teacher and worldwide ambassador for Pugliese cuisine, often gives cooking classes for guests in an open-air kitchen at the center of the complex, surrounded by their olive groves and vineyards. I’ve worked with Mino many times in the past, at the Culinary Institute of America in California and also on culinary programs in Puglia. (You can see him in action in this video shot by the Culinary Institute of America team.)
But that night, we were relaxing with a glass of wine when Mino jumped up and declared, “I have to prepare you an aperitivo.” He whipped out a skillet and set it over a flame, adding a healthy glug of his own olive oil and a couple of smashed cloves of garlic. Then a couple of peperoncini — little hot red chili peppers (also from his own garden) — went in, along with a couple of bay leaves and a bowl of those olives, fresh, black, plump and almost bursting with oil. Together it all simmered on the stovetop while we watched in fascination. “Yes, indeed,” Mino said, “they are fresh olives. Not cured at all. Right off the tree. They’re called Nolche, or sometimes Amele — because they’re sweet like apples.” And in some places, I learned later, the olives are called Termite.
Mino explained what he was waiting for: “Once the olives are disfatte,” he said, using a wonderful Italian word that means they are still distinctly olives but have collapsed and fallen in on themselves from the intense heat of the pan, “once that happens, you add just a few chopped pomodori a pennula.” These are small, intensely flavored local tomatoes, the kind smart cooks can keep hanging in a cool pantry all winter long. He shook the pan a couple more times, tossing it with that confident motion chefs master early on in their careers, and then he turned the whole of it out into a bowl for our delectation.
With some miniature blobs of burrata, the deliciously white and creamy cheese of Puglia, and good durum-wheat bread to dip in the juices, the olives were extraordinary. You could still taste the bitterness, but just as an underlying layer, a hint actually, beneath something strange and sweet and hugely rich.
Now, I will give you the recipe, but it is not something you can do in your own home kitchen, especially if you live anywhere east of California, and even in California you would be stretching it. That’s because not just any olive will do. No, it must be this peculiar and particular variety that, as far as I know, is only available in Puglia and a few other parts of southern Italy and Sicily. And you can only do it at the peak of the season, that is, at the end of September and through October.
So the first step of the recipe is to get yourself a plane ticket next September to Bari, the Pugliese capital, and then find a local market. Or better yet, rent a car and drive out to delightful Martina Franca, where the local market day is Wednesday, or Locorotondo, which has its market on Friday mornings. Buy a half-kilo (that’s about a pound) of olive per friggere, making sure you get good, sound, ripe olives. This should make enough for an appetizer for 4 to 6 people.
1 pound (½ kilo) ripe, fresh, black olives for frying
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably Pugliese
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 or 3 small, dried red chili peppers (more or less to taste)
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh, chopped
½ teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
4 or 5 small, very ripe cherry or grape tomatoes, preferably pomodori a pennula, halved or quartered
Crusty bread, torn into pieces, for dipping
1. Rinse the olives in a colander to get rid of any dust and toss gently. Spread them out on a kitchen towel to dry.
2. Set a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients over medium heat and add the olive oil. As the oil heats, smash the unpeeled garlic cloves with the flat blade of a knife and cut each one in two lengthwise.
3. Toss the garlic halves into the hot oil and let sizzle, turning frequently until they start to brown on all sides.
4. Stir in the chili peppers and bay leaves. (If the chilies are large, break them into smaller pieces; if they are too spicy, shake out the inner seeds and discard them before adding to the skillet.)
5. Add the olives and the salt and cook, turning, stirring and tossing while the olives simmer in the oil. (Think of the skillet as a wok — in fact, a wok would be a great implement for this.)
6. When the olives have started to collapse and fall apart, toss in the tomato pieces and continue cooking and tossing until the tomatoes too have disfatto, collapsed and released their juices into the olive mixture.
7. Serve in bowls or on deep plates, with plenty of bread pieces for sopping up juices. If you have a good source of burrata, it’s a fine accompaniment — but so is regular mozzarella, the kind that comes dripping with whey.
Top photo: Olives at the market with a sign indicating they are for frying. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins