Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or Word formats.

Olive-Curing-art - 5/18/13


"Curing Olives: Six Methods" by Magister Galefridus Peregrinus.


NOTE: See also the files: olives-msg, Olive-Cul-Hst-art, Smoked-Olives-art, fd-Mid-East-msg, salt-msg, Md-Cu-Islmc-Wd-rev, Caliphs-Ktchn-rev, herbs-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Curing Olives: Six Methods

by Magister Galefridus Peregrinus


Curing olives is a relatively simple, but time consuming process. Nearly all fresh olives contain a number of unpalatable substances that the curing process breaks down or leaches out. Curing also promotes a fermentation process that causes many of the distinctive olive flavors to fully develop. I have found dozens of cures, mostly in Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic farming manuals, and several more in medieval Islamic cookbooks.


A modern technique for curing olives involves the use of lye, but it seems to be quite rare in historical cures. So far, I have found only one historical example of this practice in the farming manual of Palladius, a 4th century CE Roman writer who lists nine olive cures. One of these cures states that the olives are to be packed in wood ash moistened with two kinds of wine: "old wine" and "passum" (a sweet wine made from raisins). While wood ash contains lye, the addition of wine, which is mildly acidic, would at least partially neutralize the basicity of the lye. Nearly all of the other cures that I have found rely on salt, brine, or a naturally occurring acid (vinegar, e.g.) to initiate the process. Some use a combination of these.


In an effort to explore and compare several of these methods, I have selected six recipes from four sources. These sources vary significantly in time and place and contain over a dozen cures. The six I have tried are listed below with their redactions, together with my comments. I started five of these cures (all green olives) in early October and one (black olives) in late November. Some retain a bit of residual bitterness behind the olive flavor, but it is a bitterness in keeping with the overall olive flavor.


From Abū al-Khayr al-Shajjār al-Ishbīlī, Kitāb al-Filāha (farm manual, 11th century Seville), chapter "The Cultivation of the Olive and Preservation of its Fruit." I have selected the first and third recipes out of four.


1)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           rPreparation of Olives in Brine. Take green olives that have been lightly crushed and scald them with boiling water. Then put them in a container with well-salted water and cover them with the leaves of bay, fennel and citron. A few days after this, add a little salt and a bundle of thyme.


Redaction: Take 3 lbs green Cerignola olives, crush by placing them between two cutting boards and applying about 200 lbs pressure. Transfer olives to a colander, scald by immersing in boiling water for 1 minute. Place in a pottery crock with a saturated brine prepared from coarse food grade rock salt, cover with dried bay and citron leaves, and several fennel fronds. After three days, add several sprigs of fresh thyme. Starting on the fourth day, stir gently daily and let cure until done.


Comments and observations: Shortly after scalding and immersion in brine, the olives turned from bright green to what most would call olive green. Within a few days after adding the thyme, a blue-green mold began to grow on top of the leaves, notwithstanding the high concentration of salt. After about two weeks, I began to observe a very pleasant perfume-like aroma. At about seven weeks, the olives seemed fully cured, but extremely salty. Over the course of several weeks I slowly reduced the saltiness of the brine to about half its initial strength. I also poured a layer of olive oil to isolate the olives from oxygen and limit further change. The olives are still quite salty, but also very flavorful with a pleasant aromatic scent.



A third method: Gather good white olives in October and wash them as described above. Put them in a jar and sprinkle with salt, then with oil, then flavor with leaves of mint, thyme, coriander, fennel, citron and bay. Complete the process by covering the olives with syrup of honey and vinegar [oxymel]. Finally, stuff the opening of the receptacle with the leaves of sumac and fennel and seal it tightly.


Redaction: Take 3 lbs green Cerignola olives and wash repeatedly with lukewarm tap water. Place in a stone crock and sprinkle with coarse food grade rock salt and add enough olive oil to coat. Add about ten leaves each of fresh mint and cilantro (coriander leaves), the fronds from one fennel bulb, and about ten leaves each of dried bay and citron. Add thyme leaflets stripped from a half dozen sprigs. When olives are fully cured, transfer to a clean container and add oxymel syrup to cover. Fill the gap between the olives and the lid with sumac leaves and fennel fronds in approximately equal quantities.


Comments and observations: As best as I can tell, white olives are actually a light green, so I selected the lighter colored olives from what I had purchased. "Wash as described above" most likely refers to the recipe immediately preceding this one, which stated simply "wash them with plenty of water." As the olives cured, they turned from bright green to dark greenish-brown. I prepared the oxymel syrup by mixing honey and red wine vinegar in equal volumes, then boiling gently for 10 minutes. About half of the olives were fully cured four weeks, so I transferred those to the syrup and added fennel fronds. I added the remaining olives to the syrup a week later. I had intended to add sumac leaves as well, but hurricane Sandy interfered with my ability to locate and harvest leaves of staghorn sumac (the North American equivalent of the Middle Eastern shrub). Much of the saltiness has leached out of the olives, leaving a mild sweet-sour flavor from the oxymel.


From Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, Fadālat al-Khiwān fi Tayyibāt al-Ta‘ām wa-al-Alwān (cookbook, 13th century al-Andalus). First of two recipes:


First recipe: Select olives harvested in October and November, large or small. Wash and put them in an oiled jar or one that served to contain oil in successive layers: olives, lime [the fruit] and thyme from Šardūn, until the jar is filled. Then pour in clear water to cover and leave covered for several days. Then check; if needed, add water, and salt.


Redaction: Take 3 lbs green Cerignola olives, wash in lukewarm water, and place in a greased (with olive oil), unglazed crock. Alternate layers of olives, thinly sliced limes, and sprigs of fresh thyme until crock is nearly full, then add water to cover. After 4 days, add coarse food grade rock salt and additional water as needed to cover.


Comments and observations: I used an unglazed crock for this cure because of the instruction to use an "oiled jar or one that served to contain oil." I assumed that this instruction meant that the container had been affected by being used to store oil, indicating that it was probably made of a porous material. I greased the inside of the crock with about 1/4 c. olive oil, let it sit for about 30 minutes to absorb, and wiped out the excess. "Thyme from Šardūn" probably refers to the geographic origin, possibly Sardinia. I used ordinary fresh thyme from my local grocery store. Because I used an unglazed pot, I lost water to evaporation continuously and added more several times over the course of the cure. I also added more salt over the course of several days until the olives were soaking in saturated brine. A blue-green mold started to grow on the lime slices on the top layer after about a week. Also, a film of what ultimately turned out to be some kind of mold formed on the surface of the brine. Some of olives turned greenish-brown; the rest stayed green. After thirteen weeks, the olives were still very slightly bitter; moreover, over several weeks I had observed only increasing saltiness with no reduction in bitterness, so I rinsed them and transferred to half strength brine with a few slices of lime and sprigs of thyme. As with the brine cure described previously, I poured a layer of olive oil to isolate the olives from oxygen and limit further change. These olives are very aromatic with a distinct flavor of lime.


From Geoponika (farm manual, 10th century Byzantine). I have selected the first and second of six recipes:


Very fine conserved olives. Florentinus: Taking large perfect olives, picked by hand, cut them round with a sharp reed and put them in a new jar, not yet pitched, sprinkling on top a very little salt, and when it has dissolved have ready another jar, with honey if available, if not, hepsema [concentrated grape must] and a citron leaf, and put the olives into this marinade so that it covers them. Some add fennel seed, caraway, celery seed and dill to this marinade, and make quite a remarkable olive conserve, which is unfamiliar to many.


Redaction: Take 3 lbs green Cerignola olives and cut part way around the pit. Place in a crock with a few tablespoons of coarse sea salt. After the salt has dissolved, transfer the olives to a clean crock. Add honey to cover, plus one teaspoon each of fennel, caraway, and celery seed, plus several fronds of fresh dill.


Comments and observations: The Geoponika is collection derived from older Roman and Greek sources, and Florentinus is the author of one of the source materials. In the absence of a sharp reed, I used a paring knife. "A new jar, not yet pitched" probably refers to an unglazed pottery container without an internal coating of pitch as a sealant, but I had none left and used a glazed crock instead. The salt dissolved in the liquid thrown off by the cut olives. Prior to transferring to a clean pot, I briefly rinsed the olives. I could not tell whether seeds or fresh dill was called for, and decided on fresh. Next time around I may try the seed to see if it makes a difference. A few days after it was added, the honey began to thin out, also from the liquid drawn from the cut olives. Shortly after it started to thin, the honey began to slowly ferment. The olives turned a dark greenish-brown as they cured and their surface became noticeably shriveled. The honey continued to ferment until early January, by which time the olives were effectively being cured by a mild metheglin rather than honey. This cure is very unusual in that the curing agent changes once by human intervention (salt to honey) and again as result of natural causes (honey to metheglin). The big surprise with this one is how well the sweet and olive flavors meld with each other.


Olives in oxymeli. Same author [Florentinus]. Take long ones with their stalks, best quality of course, black and unbruised, wash in cold water and dry on wicker mats; then put them in a bowl and pour olive oil on them and sprinkle on fine salt, one choinix [about 1.1 liters] to nine choinikes of olives; move them gently with the hands but do not let them bruise; then put them in a jar, pour in oxymeli so that it covers them, top with fennel fronds, and store.


Redaction: Take 11/2 lbs black Cerignola olives, wash in cold water and spread on a clean cloth to dry. Place in a glazed earthenware crock and add olive oil to coat, add 3/4 cup sea salt and gently stir with your hands. After they have mostly cured, transfer to another jar, immerse in oxymel syrup, and top off with fennel fronds.


Comments: As with the other cures, I manually stirred the olives daily. The cure was substantially complete after about five weeks. The notes in my translation of the Geoponika suggested using an oxymel syrup described in Dioscorides, and quotes the appropriate passage: "Take 5 kotylai wine vinegar, 1 mna sea salt, 10 mnai liquid honey, 1- kotylai water; mix and boil until one-tenth has boiled away; cool and store." Another translation of Dioscorides translates kotyla as cup and mna as pound; I have found tables of ancient Greek measures, and these equivalencies appear to be accurate. After two weeks in oxymel syrup, the olives were fully cured, although the flavor continued to develop over time.


From Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, Kitāb al-Tabīkh (cookbook, 10th century Baghdad). Only one recipe:


Olives prepared by Ibn al-Mahdī: Take black and green olives, but the black variety is better. Put them in a barniyya [large wide-mouthed jar] and add to them salt and thyme. Submerge them in sweet olive oil [zayt tayyib] and set the container aside until needed, God willing.


Redaction: Take 3 lbs green Cerignola olives, place in a glazed pottery crock. Add the leaflets stripped from half a dozen sprigs of fresh thyme, plus about 1/2 c. coarse food grade rock salt. When olives begin to cure, add 1 cup of oil. After they are mostly cured, add more oil to cover.


Comments and observations: Ibn al-Mahdī was a 9th century Abassid prince. I used this cure with both green and black olives. I added enough salt to maintain a few tablespoons of it undissolved in the bottom of the crock. I did not add oil initially because I judged from other experiences of using oil as a preservative that it might impede the progress of the cure, which probably needs some exposure air to proceed. This strategy worked well with the green olives. Unfortunately, with the black olives I delayed the addition of oil too long; as a result, they failed to cure properly and turned mushy. The green olives turned very dark and developed a very pleasant mild flavor, the mildest of the bunch.



Abu al-Khayr al-Shajjar al-Ishbili, Kitāb al-Filāha (11th century). An Andalusian farm manual. Available in translation at http://filaha.org/khayr_final_translation_revised.html


Dalby, A., trans. (2011). Geoponika: Farm Work. Devon, UK: Prospect Books. A 10th century Byzantine farm manual. Book 9 discusses cultivation of olives and includes instructions for expressing the oil, plus six recipes for curing olives, two of which I have included in this handout.


Pedanius Dioscorides; Osbaldeston, T.A. and Wood, R.P.A., trans. (2000). De Materia Medica. Johannesburg: IBIDIS. A 1st century CE pharmaceutical manual. Book 5 includes a description of and recipe for oxymel. A pdf version is available at: http://www.ibidispress.scriptmania.com/.


Palladius Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus; Owen, T., trans. (1807). The Fourteen Books of Paladius Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus on Agriculture. London: Printed for J. White. Book XII, chapter XXII (pp. 326-329) lists nine methods for curing olives, one of which requires wood ash.


Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī; Bencheroun, M. b. A., ed. (1984). Fadālat al-Khiwān fi Tayyibāt al-Ta‘ām wa-al-Alwān. Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami. In Arabic. This collection was compiled by the Andalusian Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī in the 13th Century. Section 10 (On Relishes and Pickles), Chapter 2 (On the Making of Olives), pp. 255-256, contains two recipes for curing olives.


A Spanish translation of Ibn Razīn is also available:

Marin, M., editor and translator. (2007). Relieves de las mesas, acerca de la delicias de la comida y los diferentes platos = Fudalat al-Hiwan fi Tayyibat al-Ta‘am wa-l-Alwan. Somonte-Cenero, Gijon: Ediciones Trea.


Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq; Kitāb al-Tabīkh. In Nasrallah, N., ed. and trans. (2007). Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Leiden: Brill. Al- Warrāq includes an olive recipe (p. 206) that he attributes to the 9th Century Abbasid prince Ibn al-Mahdi.


Ingredient lists


Abū al-Khayr: "Olives in brine"


Green Cerignola olives, lightly crushed and scalded

Saturated brine prepared from coarse Himalayan pink rock salt

Dried bay leaves

Dried citron leaves

Fresh fennel fronds

Fresh thyme


Abū al-Khayr: "A third method"


Green Cerignola olives

Coarse Himalayan pink rock salt

Extra virgin olive oil

Fresh mint leaves

Fresh cilantro

Fresh fennel fronds

Dried bay leaves

Dried citron leaves

Red wine vinegar

Clover honey


Ibn Razīn: "First recipe"


Green Cerignola olives

Extra virgin olive oil

Limes, thinly sliced

Fresh thyme

Coarse Himalayan pink rock salt


Geoponika: "Very fine conserved olives"


3 lbs green Cerignola olives

Coarse sea salt

Wild flower and clover honey

Fennel seeds

Caraway seed

Celery seed

Fresh dill fronds


Geoponika: "Olives in oxymeli"


Black Cerignola olives

Extra virgin olive oil

Coarse Mediterranean sea salt

Clover honey

Red wine vinegar

Fresh fennel fronds


al-Warrāq: "Olives by Ibn al-Mahdī"


Green Cerignola olives

Fresh thyme

Coarse Himalayan pink rock salt

Extra virgin olive oil



Olives 1


After a few days. Clockwise from left, the cures are: Abu al-Khayr, third cure; al-Warrāq; Geoponika, first cure; Abu al-Khayr, first cure; Ibn Razīn, first cure.


Olives 2


After 3 weeks. Clockwise from left, the cures are: Abu al-Khayr, third cure; al-Warrāq; Geoponika, first cure; Abu al-Khayr, first cure; Ibn Razīn, first cure. Note the blue green mold growing on the surface on the lower right. Note also the film of mold just visible on the surface of Ibn Razīn cure (bottom center).


Olives 3


After 4 1/2 weeks. Clockwise from left, the cures are: Abu al-Khayr, third cure; al-Warrāq; Geoponika, first cure; Abu al-Khayr, first cure; Ibn Razīn, first cure. I skimmed the blue green mold off the surface on the lower right. The film of mold has further developed and thickened on the surface on the bottom center.



Salt-encrusted crock. From Ibn Razīn, first cure, just before transferring to storage jar.



Fresh black Cerignola olives. They are about the size and appearance of small plums.


Abu al-Khayr:

"Olives in Brine"


Abu al-Khayr:

"Third recipe"


Ibn Razin:

"First recipe"



"Very fine conserved olives"



"Olives in oxymeli"



"Olives by Ibn al-Mahdi"


Copyright 2012 by Loren Mendelsohn, 3 Morris Pl, Towaco, NJ 07082. <galefridus at optimum.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org