Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Marinating olives: cheating on Matias

Having soaked my olives and changed the water every other day for 6 days, as instructed by the man on the olive stall, I went back to the market today to get my ingredients for stage 2. He gave me a bag containing plenty of wild oregano, some wild thyme, some wild fennel stalks, a couple of heads of garlic and, to my surprise, two bitter oranges.


I wonder if these are the same bitter oranges which grow on the trees in Seville and Cadiz. They're not generally used in Spanish cooking, and as far as I know were treated as ornamental both by the Arabs who presumably brought them here, and also by modern Spaniards. In Cadiz, they drop to the ground and the few which escape the city's street cleaners are left to rot. These, of course, are the oranges which are used to make British marmalade and even quite recently in Seville, a British company had a contract by which they were harvested and then sent to the UK, although there is certainly no local tradition of using them for marmalade or anything else that I am aware of. But apparently they can be used to flavour olives.

I then got some very vague instructions about how to marinade the olives, which seemed to involve adding whatever marinade ingredients I fancied (whole sprigs of herbs, chunks of fennel stalk, squashed whole garlic cloves and chunks of orange) covering them in more water and then adding a small amount of vinegar (not much, half a wine glass) and no salt, which should be added when serving, to which a guy standing next to me nodded vigorous agreement.

My next job was to get hold of a couple of large containers to do the marinating in. I asked at a couple of stalls that specialise in market paraphernalia - bags, paper towels and the like - but had no luck, and realised that my best option was to buy them from my usual supplier of marinated olives, Matías. It felt a bit like cheating. Actually, it felt a lot like cheating, and on my first pass by his stall I was put off by the fact that standing there was the same guy who had been nodding away at the first stall I had bought my marinading ingredients from, so I wandered off to buy some fruit and veg. Ten minutes later I was back, and found myself unwittingly eavesdropping on the following conversation:

Lady customer: These olives are good. Nearly as good as you, Matías! If I had you in my bedroom you'd be in no hurry to leave!
Matías: If you had me in your bedroom you'd be too busy to talk.
Lady customer: Ah, but we're both married.
Matías: All the more fun. (Más morbo todavía)
Lady customer: I don't cheat on anyone.
Matías: Who's talking about cheating?

After Matías' horny customer had left, it was my turn, and I thought I should order plenty of olives to soften him up for my impending betrayal. I'd just asked for half a kilo of verdiales, when who should turn up but the guy from the other stall, who seemed to be trying to assemble a motorbike part for Matías with reference to an English-language manual which neither of them understood. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I played dumb on the linguistic front, ordered another quarter of olives, and then pushed out the boat and bought some mojama (salted, dried tuna) too, before Mister Motorbike Parts finally left. And then I sheepishly bought a couple of 2-litre containers from Matías and headed home to get marinating.

I strained the olives, set out my marinating ingredients but thought I should actually taste the olives before I got started. The man on the olive stall said they should be 'sweet' at this stage, by which I assumed he meant they just shouldn't be overpoweringly bitter. I tasted one and it was fine, but the next one I tried was still completely inedible, so I decided to give the olives another few days of marinating, changing the water daily, and testing the greener of the olives for bitterness.

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