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The way I remember it, my fascination with food began the day my dad first reached through the ice cubes at the bottom of his cocktail glass to fetch me a gift. “Who wants my olive?” he asked. This became a family ritual, and it was usually I who ended up on his lap, getting him to pluck the pimiento, which I always feared might turn out to be a tomato.
My dad wasn’t a martini man. He’d usually order a Canadian Club Manhattan on the rocks, but with an olive instead of a cherry and no sweet vermouth. Sure, the drink’s not really a Manhattan, but to me that olive made the guy unique: He knew what he liked. That layer of whiskey worked like an extra coating of brine clinging to the green, unripe fruit. The olive was less a garnish or snack than a flavor center that gave character to anything it rolled up against. It wasn’t long before I started ordering kiddie cocktails with similar instructions.
The cocktail olive, while far superior to the dull, lye-cured colossals sold by the can, is still one of the less fabulous breeds. There are at least 700 varieties of Olea europaea, the tree that produces most common olives. Since the untreated fruit is totally inedible, the choices expand when you factor in all the different curing methods and the varying stages of ripeness in which it is picked.
The sundry strainsthe small, smooth gaeta, the smoky, plump, and slightly chewy manzanilla, the sharp, chestnut-brown niçoiseintertwine with history. Archaeologists have found fossilized olive leaves dating back as far as 27,000 B.C. Aristotle waxed philosophical about the fruit. Christ was nailed to an olive-wood cross. The trees themselves helped root the early Roman empire, and olive oil has ties to the New York Mafia. In his book Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, Mort Rosenblum recounts the olive’s illustrious past and chronicles how tending to a patch of olive trees on his land in southern France changed the way he views the history of
The olive hasn’t been
quite so life-altering for me, although it does dominate my personal culinary timeline. My maternal grandfather taught me to slice cocktail olives and place them with peanut butter between slices of bread; his olive fork is being willed to me by my mother. In college, I found that a six-pack, a few oil-drizzled pitas, and a jar of kalamatas was a more satisfying meal than most anything served in the cafeteria. More recently, I’ve learned to love the way all olives seem to riff loosely around the same bitter, salty, sour, sweet, nutty, and citrus tones to emit flavors as complex and highly nuanced as those of wine.
Since I started writing this column, one of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently is what I eat when I’m not out. The answer is olives, usually a pint or so of various colors and shapes complemented by a loaf of fresh bread, cheese, olive oil, some tossed greens, and wine. So for my final column, here are a few places I like to go on nights I bring the main course home:
Mount of Olives
The olive case at this Middle Eastern grocery isn’t as large as the store’s name might suggest, but the selection is eclectic. I like the Pakistani imports and the unnamed, oily, red-hot green beauties that look and taste like provençals dipped in liquid fire. If you want to add some punch to a milder olive, buy a few pickled lemons and squeeze them over the top.
3405 Payne St., Falls Church. (703) 379-1156.
Dean & Deluca
It’s hardly a hidden gem, but Dean & Deluca’s olive display is an embarrassment of riches. Just about any olive you can imagine can be found in the huge, ceramic binshard, earthy arbequinas with the stems still attached, ash-cured bella di cerignolas as big as plums, soft, amiable alfonsosand plenty of mixtures and herb-, garlic-, pepper-, and citrus-spiked renditions of old standbys. Best of all, sampling is encouraged.
3276 M St. NW. (202) 342-2500.
This Italian market has been around for over 60 years, and it has retained much of its Old World purity. The olive salad is a work of genius, and I’ve even found some kindred spirits among the regulars while gnawing on some of the whole fruits. “The character isn’t really in the meat,” swears one old-timer. “It’s the pitthe kernel of truth that tells you it’s over.”
517-519 Morse St. NE. (202) 544-0183.
A fair number of readers, including three in the past month, have inquired about my favorite dish. I don’t really have an answer, although I do order the corn cake and wild-mushroom ragout every time I go to Cashion’s Eat Place, which is my favorite restaurant. Another reader, Leslie, who met her on-and-off lover on Cashion’s patio, wrote in to tout the appetizer and also finds the sherry-kissed mushrooms as irresistible as I do. “Frankly, sometimes I like that corn cake more than her,” Leslie remarks.
Cashion’s Eat Place, 1819 Columbia Rd. NW.
(202) 797-1819.Brett Anderson