When Life Gives You Olives… Make Jam!

Confiture d’Olives et Citron
A funny thing happened to me recently. Funny things happen, I know, but what isn’t so usual about this funny thing is that it involved a mental breakdown on my part, a series of bizarre coincidences, and the chance discovery of a new favorite food. Let me start from the beginning.

Those of you who read Seattle Bon Vivant might recall a mention she made a couple of weeks ago of the new Seattle outlet of Oliviers & Co, a French gourmet food store that has recently opened their first shop in the Pacific Northwest. Luckily for me, while I was there and a couple days before a scheduled trip into the city (to dine with the gorgeous and talented Molly, among other things), Viv gushed about a green tomato jam she had purchased at O&Co. Won over by her swooning description, and never having heard of this shop before, I decided to swing by and take a look — and of course maybe pick up a jar of that much-lauded green tomato jam.

Seattle’s O&Co, the only one in the Pacific Northwest, is housed in the new and swanky Pacific Place shopping center, nestled between other spendy outlets like Pottery Barn, J.Crew and L’Occitane de Provence. Its proximity to the latter is no coincidence, I was soon to learn, since they are part of the same company having its headquarters in southern France. The shop was empty as I entered, its small boutiquey space covered in floor-to-ceiling shelves of oils and condiment jars, all bearing the company’s elegant muted-earthtone packaging scheme. I began browsing along one wall, which, I quickly realized, held nothing but about thirty different kinds of olive oil, labeled like fine wines with vintage year, region and estate. I had barely begun my examination when a friendly voice behind me asked if it was my first time in the shop. I spun around and nodded, hoping the sales lady wouldn’t insist on launching into some boring corporate information pitch. She didn’t; she just asked me if there was any particular product I was looking for. The green tomato jam popped into my mind. Before I knew it, I was telling her how I had just dropped by after reading a glowing review of the shop online and how the review mentioned this jam that I was very curious about. “What kind of jam?” she wanted to know. Yes, what kind of jam? All of a sudden my mind had gone blank – all I could remember was that it was a jam made from a very unusual ingredient. I turned back to the olive oils helplessly, kicking myself for blanking on something so crucial. “Olive jam!” I suddenly said, surprised by the confidence in my voice. Had I just picked this idea out of thin air? I had never seen olive jam in my life! I turned back to the sales lady just in time to see a very peculiar smile cross her face. “Oh yes,” she replied quietly, “olive jam. Why don’t you come with me?”

She led me across the room to a small table hidden away in a corner. On the table lay literally dozens of jars, many of them half-empty. I caught my breath and salivated – it was a tasting table. Before I knew what was happening, I had three miniature plastic spoons in my hand, each of them holding a blob of shiny, dark brown paste. “This is our standard olive jam”, she began, watching me closely as I raised the first spoon to my mouth. I felt my knees going weak – it was incredible. Sweet and silky, the taste was of fruit and honey and perfume, melting to a complex bouquet of savory olives and briny salt. It reminded me of Moroccan food and the delicate interplay of sweet, spicy and savory, or perhaps of a complex Indian fruit chutney. The second spoon contained a taste just as good, but further enhanced with the delicate fragrance of lemon. The third one was remarkably different: the smooth texture was interspersed with tiny pieces of toasted pinenuts and a caramelly, nutty undertone permeated the mixture. I stood there in awe, looking at the three varieties and wanting them all. But I didn’t have time to linger, because the tasting was moving on. The sales lady, who had introduced herself as the store manager Suhara by that point, was mixing up potions for me to try. One that she said was very popular was a combination of olive jam, syrupy aged balsamic vinegar and a very unusual extra virgin olive oil that had been pressed with ripe mandarins. “People use this to glaze meat,” she said. The flavors were exploding all over my mouth. I tried pestos and truffle sauces, vegetable preserves and tapenades, about ten different varieties of olive oil, and even a spoonful of green tomato jam (which by this point, didn’t even cause any bells of recognition to go off in my head – I didn’t realize until after I’d left the store that I had finally tasted what I’d gone in there to find). Every product was exquisite, but the thing I couldn’t get out of my head, even as I tasted everything else, was the olive jam. It was really like nothing I had ever tasted before, and I knew that even if nothing else would accompany me out of that store, a jar of olive jam would. Realizing I had been in there so long I was running late for my dinner with Molly, I plonked down the twelve dollars and clutched my jar of jam like it might run away, thanking Suhara profusely and promising I would be back to buy more just as soon as I could.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Convinced I had made the culinary find of the century, I jealously guarded my olive jam and stashed it away in my luggage to bring back to Scotland, imagining all the exciting ways I was going to use every last smear. A couple of days after the O&Co visit, and still several days before my departure, I found myself wandering around an outlet of Trader Joe’s. I was poking around among the pickles and mustards and oils, seeing what was new, when what should I spy but a jar of Sweet Kalamata Olive Spread?. Incredulous, I snatched it up. What were the chances, I thought. But then the next day as I was doing some food shopping for my family in their usual supermarket, something else nearly knocked me off my feet: nestled among the specialty cheeses that I had looked at a thousand times already was a single jar of Sweet Olive Jam produced by the Mediterranean food company Mt. Vikos. Of course I bought it, but really, what was going on? This was definitely more than a coincidence – somebody obviously was thinking there was a noticeable lack of olive jam in my life. How else to explain the chance encounters, the single jars waiting for me, the words put into my mouth? Suddenly these three precious jars I had acquired were seeming very small indeed. Who knew what the olive jam situation was back in Scotland? How could I go back to a life without it? I shuddered at the thought. Obviously I couldn’t take enough back with me, so there was only one solution. I would have to learn to make it myself.

Because, as the old adage should have said, when life gives you olives, make jam – and when life gives you olive jam, make some more!

Confiture d’Olives et Citron (Sweet Olive Jam with Lemon)
Yield: about 2 1/2 cups
Notes: I was grateful to have three different jams to deconstruct, in order to see what I liked and disliked about each. All three were surprisingly different from one another, despite the same premise. The Kalamata jam from Trader Joe’s was thick and chunky with large pieces of chewy jet-black olives; the ingredients basically listed just olives and sugar, which led to an incredibly pure and intense olive flavor. I realized Kalamatas have enough subtlety and complexity to stand up alone in a jam – I loved it, yet the nuances of flavor and consistency were not quite up to par with O&Co. At one-tenth the price, however, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm to make it a pantry staple of mine. The jam from Mt Vikos, in contrast, was made entirely with green olives, enriched with lemon, pomegranate juice and sugar and blended to a smooth, runny puree. Unfortunately I found it just a tad too sweet, the texture too loose, and the flavor too dominated by the more aggressive taste of green olives – but it was still delicious. The jam from O&Co (I bought the lemon variety, incidentally) had the longest ingredient list, containing both black and green olives, apples, lemon and honey, and compared to the other two, the best consistency and flavor. This was thus the gold standard, and the jam I tried to replicate.

Note that while you don’t have to break the bank on olives, they should be of reasonably good quality to make a full-flavored jam (i.e. no canned California olives!). Your best bet is probably going to be a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern shop that sells olives in bulk. If you only have a choice between low-quality pitted olives and high-quality olives with pits, go for the latter and pit them yourself. Also be sure to buy olives packed only in brine, not in oil or with added garlic and herbs. Edit: I’ve since determined that oil-packed olives actually work just fine, as long as they’re well-drained. I still wouldn’t go with anything flavored, though!

2 cups (ca. 300g) drained and pitted Kalamata olives (packed)
1 cup (ca. 150g) drained and pitted high-quality green olives (packed)
1 1/3 cup (270g) sugar
1 1/3 cup (325ml) water
1 medium organic lemon
1 large green apple, peeled, cored and diced
1/3 cup (80ml) mild honey

Put all the olives in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for one minute. Drain completely. Repeat this process two more times – this should take enough salt out of the olives so that they’re only mildly salty. Set the olives aside and rinse out the saucepan. Add the sugar and 1 1/3 cups water to the saucepan and swirl to combine. Cut a couple of strips of zest from the lemon and drop them in the sugar water. Slice the lemon up very thinly (don’t worry about the seeds), and add the slices to the pan as well. Bring this to a simmer over medium heat and let it cook for about 8-10 minutes, or until it’s reduced to about a cup of liquid. Pour this through a strainer into a bowl, pressing on the lemon solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Return the liquid to the pan, adding the diced apple, honey and olives. Bring to a simmer once again and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the apples are soft and everything is very thick – about another 10 to 15 minutes (you can add a bit of water if it seems to be getting too thick). Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. With an immersion blender or a normal blender, process the entire mixture until it is velvety-smooth. It should be quite a jammy consistency already; if it’s runny you can continue to cook it a little bit more, but keep in mind it will thicken as it cools. Transfer to jars and refrigerate. I haven’t tested how long this keeps, but mine is a week and a half old and still going strong. Of course you can also serilize a couple of small canning jars and can them for shelf storage.

And how to use this miraculous substance? I love this jam with cheese, particularly with hard pungent cheeses like Manchego or Pecorino or an aged farmhouse cheddar. In Scotland nice restaurants will often serve a cheese selection with oat biscuits and a homemade chutney – it would be perfect for that. I’ve also fallen in love with it on sandwiches with Italian dry salami and Emmenthal or Gruyere cheese and a bit of peppery arugula. Heaven.