an olive odyssey

 

orange and rosemary marinated wild barossa olives

This is a story that begins a little over two years ago in autumn 2004. It was the middle of a hectic Barossa Valley vintage and an enthusiastic young winemaker was working night and day crushing grapes and guiding them through the alchemy-like process of turning grape juice into wine. There was barely time to eat yet alone sleep but our tireless winemaker soldiered on, convincing herself that she was having the time of her life….

After weeks of work, work, work the cellar crew decided to have a night out…dinner at Vintners, one of the better restaurants in the Barossa followed by drinks at their local dodgy pub known affectionately as the ‘TH’. A grand old time was had by all. When it came time to go home, our winemaker, mindful of her early start the next day and that she only lived 8km out of town by the back roads, decided that she was OK to drive and jumped into her shiny brand new winery ute…

Unfortunately she wasn’t in prime driving condition and on a narrow dirt road, only a kilometre or so from her big farm house, she somehow managed to roll the Toyota Hilux multiple times over a fence and into her neighbour’s paddock.

Miraculously, our young winemaker walked away with only a scratch on her finger but the Hilux was dead. And when she reported it to her employers, the emerging iconic Barossa winery decided that they no longer needed the services of a young winemaker who had carelessly crashed a company vehicle on the way home from the pub, regardless of her enthusiasm and dedication.

To have survived a near death experience and then to go from working 24/7 to having all the time in the world was a shocking experience to say the least. As our young, now unemployed winemaker tried to make sense of what had happened and what she should do next, she realised that she needed to keep active. So her first post-accident days were spent in the company of Bess, her brother’s faithful Kelpie, picking olives that grew wild on the sides of the labyrinth of Barossa back roads surrounding her home.

After reading up, she decided to follow Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander’s olive pickling guidelines. Sounded easy enough….just soak the olives in fresh water, changing the water every couple of days, until the bitterness in the olives has gone then bottle them in a brine solution to keep in until ready to consume.

At first she diligently changed the water every other day and after a couple of weeks sampled the fruits of her labour. The tiny glossy fruit looked inviting but alas the bitterness was lurking there…more time was needed. The water changing slowed to whenever a mouldy surface film started to grow on the water but still the bitterness persisted.

With a journey to visit a friend in Tokyo for a few weeks calling our winemaker away from her olives, she carefully tucked them in with a super strong salt solution to prevent any unwanted mould growth. A month or so later, grateful to have had a change of scenery, our heroine returned from the exotic land of geisha and sushi. Would her olives be edible yet?? One bitter taste and the answer was no….were they ever going to taste OK??

Through the long dreary winter our winemaker picked up work pruning vines: one of the most miserable vineyard jobs. And her olive tending continued with water changes every now and then. Sometimes she thought the bitterness had slightly abated, but usually the next one she sampled would be as potent and unpleasant as ever.

As the winter drew to an end, it came time for our winemaker to pack her bags once more. This time for a trip to the gorgeous vineyards of the Rhone Valley in France, just south of the wonderful city of Lyon. With her French winery work planned for the three months of vintage she toyed with the idea of abandoning her baby olives. But her optimistic streak couldn’t discard the well loved fruit so the olives were packed into jars with a strong brine. She thought she had read that the brine should be as salty as the sea but decided to err on the side of caution and opted for an intensely salty brine that would make the Dead Sea taste like tap water.

Working a vintage in France was an amazing experience, not only professionally but personally. As our winemaker regained the passion that had been drained from her during her stint pruning vines, she also decided that she no longer wanted to live in the Barossa, so far from her family and friends in New South Wales.

On her return to Australia she enlisted the help of her parents and snow bunny sister and they packed up her Barossa farm house and put everything in storage. While her mum thought the jars and jars of olives should be thrown out, our winemaker felt otherwise. As a compromise they discarded the jars that were not properly sealed, but packed up the remaining bottles to take with them.

When the olives were about nine months old, our young winemaker decided to give them a turn in polite company. They were dressed up in a marinade of garlic and bay leaves and olive oil. But the pesky bitterness still lingered and the olives were left by the guests, practically untouched.

A new vintage marked the first birthday of the olives, now safely bedded in a different farm house. But our young winemaker had little thought for them, she was immersed in the new challenges of a vintage in Mudgee. Although the family winery in Mudgee was a top place to work, fate had other ideas and it turned out that our winemaker was destined to return to city life. A new job with an old employer and a new apartment meant our heroine was reunited with her olive collection.

It wasn’t until months later, when she was planning a Middle Eastern menu, that our young former winemaker decided to risk the olives again. By now over 18months had passed and finally olive magic had occurred and the pesky bitterness was gone. In it’s place was a gorgeously intense black olive flavour…similar in character to those cute little Ligurian olives from Italy’s north…at last…all good things…..

orange and rosemary marinated wild barossa olives
makes 2 cups

Fortunately my olive collection is still going strong which is amazing at over two years of age. They seem to be getting better and better. They tend to be on the salty side so I find they are much more palatable if first marinated in olive oil. I usually keep a jar in the fridge…perfect for a pre dinner snack.

Feel free to vary the flavouring ingredients. Orange and rosemary are my current favourites but I also like dried, chilli, fennel seeds, thyme, preserved lemon or regular lemon zest, bay leaves, even cumin seeds…but not all at once.

2 cups wild barossa olives, or olives of your choice
1 large sprig rosemary, leaves picked
4 cloves garlic, skin on, flattened with the back of a knife
zest of one orange
freshly cracked black pepper
1/2C olive oil
olive oil, extra to top

‘Sterilise’ a large jar with a tight fitting lid but putting through the dishwasher or placing in a saucepan of water and brining to the boil for about ten minutes.

Place all ingredients in a saucepan and heat gently over a low to med heat for approx 10 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse. Remove from heat and transfer everything to the clean dry sterilised jar. Top with enough olive oil to keep the olives submerged.

Will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of months.

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