Little apple of my eye – the Manzanilla olive (or there's something about Mary)


Having been fortunate to spend a week in Almeria emptying the Med of fish and seafood I reflected more than once how often our national perception serves to distort our consumption. I was watching the kids attack a huge polpo parrillada, a grilled octopus leg or arm [they have two arms and six legs, no idea how to tell the difference], playing with the suckers to see if they stuck to my wine glass and generally having a whale of a time. This was in stark contrast to my learned colleague who basically freaked out a week earlier when tasting a tiny octopus tentacle in a seafood antipasti and twenty minutes later was wolfing down highly processed hot dogs of questionable quality, origin and ingredients. A
 portion of tuna arrived shortly after which my daughter was convinced she had eaten many times with her childminder and would be grey and flaky. It wasn't but she just got on with scoffing it, the salt flakes helped.

In the UK we can be quite squeamish about eating things which look like the thing we are eating; many of my colleagues and friends prefer headless, tailess and boneless animal parts whereas i look to see what i'm eating.

Along with this aversion come the other 'smoke and mirrors' of shape changing and processing beyond recognition and masking of true flavours, if we laid out the ingredients of said Hot Dog cooked separately I’m not sure many people would be up to that “bushtucker” challenge.

In a somewhat tenuous link I thought of dyed black olives which I consider a crime against gastronomy and, as the sun was shining too much on my head, my mind wandered through various dehydrated states coming to rest on the idea that this aversion extends increasingly also to tasting of olives. Wild and wacky flavours are applied which overwhelm the nature and flavour of the ingredient “because people don’t like the taste of olives”. This goes some way to explaining the rise and rise of the middle of the road generic sweet green olive, which in fairness can be more suited to wine especially white, as they don’t exhibit strong clashy flavours.

Juxtaposed with this trend we find that increasingly exotic olive varietals are required to satisfy our seemingly insatiable desire for novelty. The final resting place of this beer induced thought meander was the idea that if manzanilla [which translates as little apple] olives were priced exorbitantly they would probably be greatly appreciated rather than overlooked or considered as mere carriers of fashionable flavours, lately booze. They are sour, salty, delicious, texturally magnificent, just the right size, lacking bitterness and although not glamourous or mysterious in the way of Gaeta or Noire de Nyons they are every bit as good [especially with beer]. I recall a similarly sentiment in one of the Leon cookbooks that white mushrooms are hugely undervalued and would be treated with much greater respect were they to command a high price. Perhaps this is why almost every Spanish tapas bar and restaurant offers a simple bowl of manzanillas to accompany a cold beer, and from now on I will as well.