The olive tree has provided food, shelter, light, and lubrication to half of my ancestors for the past few thousand years. Those swarthy Mediterraneans who kindly passed along their sun-loving, cancer-resistant genes spent generation upon generation cultivating the fruit of this tree. In fact, some of them so closely associated themselves with it that they began to be called Olivieri, or “the olive growers.”
I can only imagine the horror they might feel if they knew that all those centuries of close association with and loving care for olives came to a sad genetic end with three children whose only experience with the fruit was sticking tinny-tasting canned black Mission olives on their finger tips like bulbous Goth press-on nails and sucking them off one by one.
Fortunately, I now have the utmost respect for olives.
As my tastes matured and (hopefully) refined, I came to experiment with higher quality olives– nothing canned was allowed. First came the Greeks, like Kalamatas, and beautiful green Amfissas, which seem to have ended up in my martinis. Then came the French types, like the Niçoise and picholine, which ended up in my tapenades.
Tapenade. I’ve been an enormous fan of it for years, since I discovered that it satisfies not only my near-constant hunger for salt, but allows me to honor my ancestors without having to try too hard. It’s a flavorful homage with a sharp, French twist, which suits me just fine. It is earthy and basic. Any sort of tarting up should be avoided.
For example (there is always an example, you know), when I was young and foolish enough to attend culinary school, I found myself in a senior term garde manger class. For those of you who don’t know, garde manger is the department of a kitchen responsible for creating salads, hors d’oeuvres, aspics, and charcuterie. In more elaborate set-ups, the garde manger also creates fabulous ice sculptures and salt dough fantasies. Think: cruise ship.
In our class, however, ice sculpting was out of the question, so we were invited/forced to create what are called “mirrors”. Now for those of you unclear on the idea, “mirrors” are platters of cold food, like sliced aspics and terrines, that are arranged upon, unsurprisingly, mirrors. In cooking school, each morsel is handled about twenty-seven thousand times by students eager to get things “just right” and then offered up to unsuspecting diners at discount prices.
I had been in charge of creating one such mirror to be presented to the public at one of our Friday luncheon buffets, just like a real restaurants might have. Unlike real restaurants, however, we had an entire week to create a single platter of food. There were two other students under me in whom I had no confidence whatsoever.
I decided that the three of use were going to stay true to the spirit of garde manger, which was to create dishes using the leftovers of other departments. That was the way, after all, that restaurants increased their profit margins, wasn’t it? All the other teams seemed to be ordering fresh, exotic ingredients: black truffles for a terrine (request denied), blue corn tortilla chips for an edible version of the Brazilian flag (approved). I was horribly smug. I was feeling superior.
And then, I was feeling sick. I was out of school for three days.
When I returned the day of the buffet, I discovered that I had been (understandably) replaced as mirror team leader. To my great joy, the woman in charge had taken the spirit of garde manger to heart as well and refused to purchase any new ingredients. “Maybe this won’t be so bad, after all,” I thought. I could offer advice here and there, but I could not insist upon anything. When I wandered over the the Brazilian team to compliment them on their design, but let them know as gently as possible that, though we may spell Brazil with a “z”, the folks of that country spelled it with “s” on their flag, I was countered with an unprintable expletive. After that, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t say one more (expletive) word about anything for the rest of the day.
Which was a pity, since I returned to find my teammates placing precious little quenelles of tapenade upon little toasts that looked like the real thing, only shrunk to doll size. I had thought to caution them against quenelles, because quenelles of anything brownish in color are never a good idea because they would only remind people of what happens to their food after the important bits have been digested by the body.
Our mirror was going to look like a four letter word beginning with “s”. Literally.
“That tapenade needs some color, don’t you think?” asked the new team leader.
“Well, what do you think? You’re the boss.” is all I said. I was tired, getting over the flu, and I no longer cared.
“I think it needs a garnish,” she said.
She went off to the walk-in refrigerator to see what she could find. A few minutes later, she returned with a box of cherry tomatoes and some chives. With her sharp, 10″ chef’s knife, she quartered the tiny cherry tomatoes and placed one on top of each quenelle. As a final flourish, she added two sprigs of chive.
It was brilliant. Out of scraps and nothing, she had created what looked like a small army of ladybugs– each freshly-landed on its own, private pile of dung– floating on rafts of toast. And the best part of it all was that she hadn’t the faintest idea what little bit of genius she had created.
I can no longer recall what else was on that mirror alongside those ladybugs. Nor can I remember the third person on our team or what kind of grade we got for that wonderfully awful presentation. I do, however, remember that none of the guests lunching with us ate anything off our display. They did, however, come back to look. And point.
I hope my ancestors aren’t rolling in their crumbling, sun-bleached graves and family vaults over this sort of blasphemy. After all, I had nothing to do with it except let it happen. I would never let decent olives be treated in such a way again. Except, of course, to photograph it and share with you, dear reader.
We Mediterraneans, we are generous souls.
This mindlessly simply dish hails from Marseilles– a seaport town famous for many things one might expect seaport towns to be famous for: seafood dishes, like bouillabaisse; sailors, like Popeye (on his mother’s side); and, of course, women whose income is derived from sailors, like Mme. Popeye.
Serve tapenade with whatever you like. It’s excellent on toasted bread, slathered on chicken before or after baking, or alongside roasted fish. It plays well with tomatoes, too– I just ask you to please not serve them as seen above, unless you are deliberately trying to make an unpleasant statement of some kind.
Makes about 1 cup
2 cups of pitted Kalamata olives (Use whatever olives suit your taste: Niçoise, Gaeta, Nyons, etc.)
2 tablespoons capers
3 to 4 anchovies (use less or omit if you are not into them as much as I am)
1 clove crushed garlic
1 to 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice (add according to taste, naturally)
About 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.
Toss olives, capers, anchovies, and garlic into a food processor. Pulse until roughly chopped. With one hand on the “pulse” button, drizzle in olive oil with your other hand and pulse until desired texture results (It is at its most charmingly rustic when left chunk-style. The photo shows one that has been made to smooth for the purposes of story). Add lemon juice to taste. Serve.