The Pros and Cons of Lye Curing

We have many beautiful Sevillano olive trees scattered around our landscape. Usually, we pull the olives off of these trees because as much as I’m attracted to the large olives for curing, the olive fruit fly is just as enamored with the big, green, Spanish olives as future homes for their many generations of offspring. But when the fruit is as big and plentiful as it was this year I beg for a few more weeks of maturity before we bury the olives in the compost pile to organically halt a few generations of this unwanted pest. This was one of those years. A few weeks ago, my assistant Antonio and I were able to cherry pick about 40 pounds of big Sevillano olives that did not have fly stings. The next day we called in the crews to pick and compost the remaining olives, protecting our still immature Tuscan crop. I usually cure olives in a salt brine because I can taste the olives during the process and retain a nice olive fruit flavor. This process takes 10 months to a year, but with these large, green Sevillano olives, I like to hold onto their attractive color. I can do this by processing the olives in lye. The other benefit of lye is that I can cure the olives in a single twenty-four hour period. The compromise you make for these benefits is that the olives lose almost all of their flavor. It’s an empty palette, or what Susan Williams likes to call "a gateway olive" for those who may be a little wary of stronger olive flavor like the brine-cured Tuscan Table Olives that we sell. Historically, olives cured using alkalis were probably rolled in a paste of wood ash and water. Today, if you can find it, you can buy lye and dissolve it in water, which makes the process easier and less messy. Since it's used for nefarious purposes, lye can be expensive and hard to find, so I'm lucky to be able to borrow the little bit that I need from our sister soap company, Sapothocary. After the olives are soaked in two lye baths of twelve hours each, they are soaked in water, that is changed regularly over a three-day period. After that, the olives are ready to eat. -Chef Mark Rohrmeier