Black Olive from Aragón
The Aragón olive is smaller than the common Spanish varieties and and contains little fluid. Eloi Bonjoch/©ICEX
Author: Graham Keeley/©ICEX
The aceituna negra de Aragón or the black Aragón olive is described by some 'aficionados' as the 'King of Olives'. Like all olives, it has that distinctive bitter taste, but is mellower than in green olives. This smooth, black-brown fruit from eastern Spain, in fact, has a slightly sweet tang which marks it out in the rarefied world of olives. Indeed, the black Aragón olive is generally regarded as among the sweetest of the many hundred different varieties of olives.
The Aragón olive is generally smaller and almond shaped in contrast to the average green variety often found in southern Spain or other parts of the world. They contain less liquid and as such are of less use in making olive oil, so are generally seen as something to be eaten, perhaps as an aperitif, although small quantities of Aragón black olive oil are produced.
They are harvested by hand in December or January. They are traditionally collected by shaking them off the trees with nets underneath. Or in some cases, they are collected from the ground once they have ripened and have fallen from the trees. Sometimes they are beaten off the trees with sticks.
Once harvested, they are treated to try to rid the fruit of some of the bitterness which makes them initially inedible. Olive farmers have to rid the fruit of phenolic and oleropein compounds which cause this bitterness through a process which in turn, adds lactic acid which preserves the fruit. To this end, the olives are put in large tanks, buried in salt and left out in the open for between 25 and 30 days. The combination of the cold -it can reach temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit in Aragón in the winter- and the saline solution reduces the olive's bitterness and produces that delicious taste. Once they have gone through this treatment they are ready to serve. But there is, of course, more than one way to enjoy the black Aragón olive.
In a Cocktail
Javier de las Muelas is the owner of the renowned Dry Martini speakeasy bar and restaurant in Barcelona, which specialises in cocktails. He says black olives, although not as widely used as their green cousins in cocktails, provide an interesting alternative. "The use of the black olive in cocktails is not usual but the idea of using it as a complement and ornamentation is very interesting" he said. "It has a velvety smoothness, is sweet, fleshy and if you eat it and all its juice bathed in a good vodka, it makes a fantastic complement for an extraordinary Martini."
Mr de las Muelas suggested a number of recipes to prepare cocktails using this type of olive. "These cocktails, to me, conjure up winter afternoons, before long nights. Veiled in joy, it should be perhaps be drunk with Cole Porter's music ringing in the background while dancing at the New York Waldorf Astoria. Never just one, but never more than two, and always in company with the olive for the penultimate sip." Mr de las Muelas suggested some music which would best accompany a cocktail made with a black Aragón olive: Cole Porter's Night and Day or Easy to Love, Celeste from Verdi's Aida performed by Luciano Pavarotti, Bizet's Carmen performed by Maria Callas or Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot performed by Pavarotti.
Cooking a Dish
Carles Abellán, head chef and owner of Comerç 24 in Barcelona, said black Aragón olive is used more as a condiment than in the cooking process. "The black Aragón olive has an intense taste and texture. It is very characteristic of the Mediterranean world," he said. "It is a sweet olive and contains little fluid - perhaps no more than 15 per cent of it is made up of oil. But at the same time it contains many very important vitamins."
Abellán said that, because of its salty taste and their traditional use as an aperitif, the black Aragón olive is not as often used to cook with as green olives from southern Spain. "Olives on the whole are an essential part of Mediterranean cuisine, but the black Aragón olive is actually a more popular olive for aperitifs and tends not to be used for cooking save in some select dishes."
"One recipe which I use it for is cooking white fish. This can be sea bass or cod. You would put it into the oven at about 355 degrees Fahrenheit, with the fish salted and surrounded by black Aragón olives. You would then drizzle the juices the olives released and some olive oil on top. This should be cooked for only 15 minutes per 5.5 lbs of fish. White fish should always be cooked at high temperature for a short time." Mr Abellán said this type of olive can also be use in many other recipes from entrees to main dishes and deserts. The bitter taste of the olive can provide a novel contrast to traditionally sweet deserts.
Straight from the Market
Francesc Esteve, owner of the specialist Olives Fransesc shop in Barcelona's famous La Boqueria market, put it simply: "The black Aragón is the king of olives. Its taste is simply magnificent, unlike any other." In the bustling market where he works, Mr Esteve's shop is a veritable shrine to olives, attracting tourists from around the world. "The black Aragón olive has a certain sweetness which makes it different from other types of olive. All olives are of course bitter - that's what makes them special. But the Aragón black is my favourite and it is very popular with customers," he enthused.
Mr Esteve's family has been selling mainly Spanish olives from the same market stall for the past 62 years. "My grandparents started here and the business has been handed down through three generations." Mr Esteve, whose bustling stall sells the black Aragón olives for €7 ($10.24) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) - making it one of the more expensive olives - said: "you would ideally have this type of olive with a salad or as a compliment before a meal." He also sells an Aragón olive paste called, appropriately enough El Rey de la Aceituna (The King of Olives), for €3 ($4.39). "This is ideal for toast or to have with some soft cheese. Or you could have it with some salad," he remarked.
Graham Keeley is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona who has written about food, wine and travel for a number of newspapers including The Times, The Independent and The Sunday Telegraph.