Olives might be one of the world's most perfect foods: salty, bitter, sour, meaty, fatty—it's no wonder the ancients thought they were the food of the gods. Does your mouth start to water at the mere thought of the taste of an olive? You're not alone.
Olives are also one of the most diverse fruits with more than 500 different cultivars. And one of the most sublime of these many varieties are Niçoise olives.
What Are Niçoise Olives?
Niçoise olives (pronounced "NEES-wahz") are a cultivar of olives that are grown in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France in the southeastern-most part of the country encompassing the city of Nice and bordering Italy on the Mediterranean coast.
Niçoise olives are basically the cured version of the Cailletier olive, sometimes also called the Taggiasca olive. The name Niçoise indicates not only the cultivar of olive but also its manner of curing, which in this case happens to be brine-curing. The olives are left to ripen on the tree until they're a dark, purplish-brown color, almost black, and then they're cured for several months in a curing liquid of water, salt, and other seasonings and herbs.
Because they originate near the sea, Niçoise olives are often paired with seafood. Most famously in the classic Salade Niçoise, a salad of cooked potatoes, blanched green beans, cooked tuna, hard-boiled eggs, and Niçoise olives.
How to Use Niçoise Olives
Niçoise olives are as versatile as they are delicious. You can eat them out of hand paired with crackers, cheeses, and cured meats, as well as include them in salads, sauces, and poultry and fish dishes. When cooking Niçoise olives, the trick is to add them toward the end of cooking time as excessive heat can cause their natural bitterness to predominate. With that said, Niçoise olives would be a wonderful topping on pizza—just be sure to pit them first.
Olives need to be cured because uncured olives have a high concentration of a compound called oleuropein, a glucoside, which imparts an extremely bitter flavor. Curing them reduces this bitterness. For that reason, it's difficult to obtain uncured olives, but if you ever do and you're feeling ambitious, you can try to cure your own.
What Do They Taste Like?
Niçoise olives have a salty, briny flavor from the curing liquid as well as natural sour, bitter, pungent, and oily flavors, with nutty, winey, and licorice notes. The flesh is firm and the pit is large relative to the olive's overall size.
Niçoise Olive Recipes
Include Niçoise olives on a cheese board, serve in a bowl as part of an appetizer spread, or toss into salad, pasta, or other savory dishes.
Niçoise olives are also wonderful for making olive tapenade, a spread made of puréed olives, capers and anchovies. To make a tapenade, you'd just need a food processor to puree the olives and other ingredients, along with just enough olive oil so that the olives and other items form a spreadable paste. It's advisable to use the best quality olive oil you can manage.
Where to Buy Niçoise Olives
Niçoise olives can be purchased in jars and cans at the supermarket and they are also widely available from online merchants. If your supermarket has an olive bar, you can almost always find them there as well sold by the pound (although most likely they originated in a can or jar prior to being in the olive bar).
Nutrition and Benefits
A 15-gram serving of Niçoise olives, which works out to about 8 olives, provides 45 calories along with about 5 grams of fat. They also contains about 180 mg of sodium, mostly as a result of the brining .
Because they're already cured, which means they're saturated with a salty liquid, Niçoise olives are not readily susceptible to spoilage. You don't want them to dry out, though, so the best way to store them is to keep them in the original brine that they came in or in olive oil or a combination. You can keep them at room temperature in this manner, but it's perfectly fine to store them in the refrigerator where they'll stay good for months—perhaps even longer, assuming you don't knock the jar over and the brine leaks out.