From its huge Maddelenas to the tiny Arbequinas, the expansive Mediterranean olive bar at Wegmans in Hunt Valley suggests a landscape of ancient olive groves and evergreen ingenuity.
Cured in wine as well as brine, the glossy Maddelena olives and the brown-green Arbequinas, tinged with summer savory and thyme, represent a fraction of the olive bar's bounty. Among dozens of other varieties, there are wrinkled, oil-cured specimens, elegant nicoise olives and savory morsels marinated, stuffed and seasoned solely for the purpose of perfuming martinis.
Revered in art, antiquity and the Bible, the olive has found new purpose and wide appeal, thanks in large part to that irresistible marketing magnet, the olive bar.
Believed by some to have been cultivated as early as 5000 B.C. in Crete, olives in the past 20 years have come to signify a grocery store's level of sophistication. The more table olive offerings, the more savoir-faire. But without prominent display, the oil-rich fruit might otherwise have been overlooked by consumers overwhelmed by a profusion of discretionary food choices.
As a result, olive bars now occupy prime real estate on the floors of upscale supermarkets where discerning customers choose from a selection from Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Australia, South America and California.
Mainstream supermarkets, such as Giant, may not boast the same variety, but even a modest olive collection shows culinary erudition.
The olive bar tells consumers that "stores are up-to-date with food trends," says Lynne
Miller, the fresh-market editor for Supermarket News. "They're a major plus also for retailers," she says. "They don't require much maintenance. As long as store employees keep the olive bar clean, there's not much for them to do."
When Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, presented an olive tree to citizens as a source of food, oil and wood, they gratefully named their city after her. The current olive craze, though, began in more humble fashion.
"Ten years ago, we introduced probably six varieties of olives [in] little, itty-bitty containers put in the cheese shop," says Ellen Campbell, who is responsible for buying millions of pounds of olives annually for the Wegmans chain.
"We started adding more varieties and expanded and changed our merchandising from little Mason jars to stainless-steel pans flat in the case. Then we put them on displays for self-service." Soon, "It just exploded," Campbell says.
Whole Foods opened its first olive bar 10 years ago for ornamental purposes, says Cathy Strange, national cheese coordinator for the retail chain. "With cheese, you have a lot of monotones" and olives added aesthetically pleasing accents of blacks, greens and purples, she says. Since then, there's been "more than double-digit growth in that category for sure," Strange says.
After years of the olive's sideshow existence as a "jumbo-super-colossal" stuck in a can or relegated to ethnic delis with niche clientele, the fruit's ascent caught Campbell by surprise. "If you were going to tell me years ago that this was going to be an exploding category, [I'd be] really shocked," she says.
A confluence of trends, sensibilities and marketing strategies helps to explain how the olive lends itself to star treatment.
The rise of the Mediterranean diet - with its emphasis on olive oil, said to boost beneficial cholesterol levels - elevated the ancient fruit to "super-food" status. With the growth of television food programs, Web sites and listservs devoted to international cuisine, the olive's appeal also has seeped into the public consciousness, industry observers say.
The twin trends of tapas and small-plate restaurants have promoted the olive's profile, as has the martini revival. Found in pastas, tapenades, dips, salads, antipastos, fish dishes and sauces, the olive's versatility also has established the fruit's reputation as a luxurious staple that adds gourmet cache to meals at moderate cost.
At a flat price ranging from about $6 to $10 a pound, bulk sales of olives provide consumers with "a really good deal," says Ron Tanner, editor of Specialty Food magazine.
The olive-oil industry's influence on food organizations that promote good nutrition "has played an enormous role" in the olive boom, says Solomon Katz, a food anthropologist based at the University of Pennsylvania. And as consumers become more discriminating about their selections, Katz predicts that olives will be marketed like wine rather than sold in bulk.
"Right now, an olive is an olive is an olive on those olive bars," Katz says. "I think that's going to shift as people discover really fine ones," he says. Then, olive varietals, their cultivation and treatment will captivate enthusiasts as passionate as their counterparts in the wine world, he says.
Often harvested from trees hundreds of years old that may have come from cuttings of trees thousands of years old, olives are naturally bitter and edible only when cured. The variety of curing methods - in brine, oil, water, lye and dry-curing in salt - generates a prodigious assortment of flavors and textures.
The selection expands further when olives, black or green depending on the degree of ripeness, are processed in marinades flavored with mixtures of garlic, citrus, dried chiles, oregano, bay leaves, fennel and cumin seeds and other spices. Green olives are often cracked to aid the marination process. Olives may be stuffed with gorgonzola, anchovies, capers, almonds, garlic or pimento. They're grown both organically and conventionally and come pasteurized and unpasteurized.
As one of the country's major importers of olives, DeLallo Foods, outside of Pittsburgh, is responsible in large part for introducing countless variations of the high-fat fruit, botanically classed as a drupe, to American consumers.
Shipped in enormous drums, olives arrive from around the world at DeLallo's processing plant, where they are graded for size and inspected for sediment, stray pits and rejects or "calls." Then the olives are processed and distributed to many national chains, including Wegmans, Giant, Safeway and Super Fresh, says spokesman Anthony DiPietro.
He compares the evolving art of making tasty olives to creating artisanal cheeses. "It's something you have to perfect," DiPietro says.
Olives, of course, no longer sit alone at the bar. DeLallo's, for example, sells a large selection of antipasti, including marinated artichokes, seasoned mushrooms, sweet garlic marinated in olive oil, roasted peppers and cipolline onions for endless parings with olives.
At Wegmans' Mediterranean olive bars, a spread of hummus, baba ghannouj, tzatziki and other savory items complement the calabreses, green Picholines and Bella di Cerignolas.
That a profusion of specialty foods once available only at ethnic delis is now found in mainstream supermarkets doesn't trouble Joseph DiPasquale, the owner of two Baltimore Italian markets where a mere 15 kinds of olives can be found.
"I haven't noticed a change in my sales," DiPasquale says. The olive boom is good for everyone, he says. Besides, after sampling any number of exotically flavored olives, customers eventually will "go back to the classics," he says.
The kalamata, the Greek colossal, the meaty Cerignola - each of these ancient fruits, cured and simply treated, offers an enduring pleasure that DiPasquale believes will outlive the overwhelming abundance found at the olive bar.
Popular varieties of table olives and their origins
Olives are defined by color, geographic region, varietal, size, curing and flavoring methods.
Spain is well-known for the Manzanilla, picked when green, and the Hojiblanca and Gordal olives.
France produces the green Picholine and the dark nicoise, both brine-cured, as well as the dry salt-cured Nyons.
Italy has black, wrinkled Gaeta olives, dry- or brine-cured.
Greece is the source of the kalamata, black-purple and almond-shaped, and the dark-green, cracked Naphlion.
California is the home of the canned black olive (which turns black through the curing process), and the Sicilian-style green olive.
Maddelena: A large, purple olive grown in Peru, with soft flesh and acidic flavor.
Oil-cured: Grown in various countries, these wrinkled, black olives are salty and pungent.
Bella di Cerignola: Meaty green, red and yellow olives from southern Italy.
Arbequina: A small, brown-green, sharply flavored olive.
From The Penguin Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, DeLallo spokesman Anthony DiPietro and Web sources: wholehealthmd.com, delallo.com, hormel.com, thepatti-o.com