view of a tuscan olive groves with pruning branches littering the ground under blue skies with a few clouds.
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Can You Eat Olives Straight from the Tree?

Last updated on October 26th, 2023

How many times have you been touring the Tuscan countryside and noticed groves upon groves of olive trees that seem overly burdened with beautifully plump and juicy olives? And then perhaps you ask yourself why no one is stopping to pluck the trees bear on the side of the road? 

As tempting as it may look and sound, I am here to tell you the ugly truth: they are so not good to eat! They are, simply put, bitter, hard – almost crunchy and just terrible tasting. Honestly, it’s almost unfair how beautiful and poliveserfect they look and how terribly disappointing and foul they are when you sink your teeth into them. Even if you manage to get your hands on riper olives, they are not going to be bursting with salty, juicy goodness, they will just be less hard. 

If you haven’t noticed this and you are coming to Tuscany in October and November, take a closer look. Olive groves are everywhere and despite their beautiful fruits, don’t be fooled and make the same mistake many do by trying them. But don’t worry, there are so many wonderful things to make with olives and I will tell you all of them if you want to get involved in the yearly harvest and make something besides oil. 

So if olives taste so badly directly from the tree, how did we understand the secret to making them taste good? Legend has it that some lucky fellow happened upon the olives that dropped from the trees planted on the coast and left in the salt water and cured. The rest is history!

Is It Safe to Eat Olives Straight From the Tree?

Yes, it’s technically safe, but that doesn’t mean they taste good! They are extremely bitter and the flesh is very hard. The pit is also small and hard so be careful if you dare taste them. 

So since you won’t be eating them raw, check out our article on How Italians Cook with Olive Oil and How Italians Use Olive Oil to learn about more about using the actual golden juice itself!

a close up of freshly harvested olives in tuscany with leaves mixed in

What Do Olives Picked from a Tree Taste Like?

Raw olives that have not yet been cured in some way will be very bitter and unpleasant tasting. Not only that but they generally are very hard or mealy with a small pit in the middle. They are not juicy and silky smooth in texture as the olives you buy in a jar or in the deli. The bitterness comes from two compounds found inside olives, oleuropein and ligstroside, both of which are removed in the curing process. 

Oleuropein and ligstroside are Mother Nature’s way of keeping pests and animals away from the olives. They don’t like the taste just as much as we don’t! There are several curing methods, all of which allow olives to be preserved and enjoyed year-round but it takes weeks and even months to remove enough of these bitter flavors to make them palatable. 

Good To Know: There are so many different varieties of olives grown in Italy. Read Italian Olives – 14 Types & What to Do With Them to get the low-down on the most popular types!

What You Can Do With Olives You Pick from a Tree

Rather than popping them directly in your mouth, try one of the following:

  • Take them to a frantoio, an olive mill, and have them pressed into oil. You will need a lot of olives and need to call and make an appointment. Or, if you want to get involved in the harvest on your vacation, head to an agriturismo and ask if they allow helpers. 
  • Cure them (and roast them after being cured).
  • Let older kids play with them. They are great for practicing counting, pretend cooking, and simply tossing around outdoors. During the fall, I often find my kids’ pockets full of olives when I do laundry, as they like picking them up and pocketing them for play. 
  • Dry the branches and make a wreath or other fall decorations. They don’t dry quite as well as some other vegetation, but we make a table setting every fall that we periodically replace with new branches. 
view of an olive grove with a man laying out a green tarp to collect the olives around the closest tree. red containers for holding olives around tree

Methods of Brining Olives

I have personally tried the salt brine at home, but I only did it one year as it was a bit labor-intensive for my liking. The olives I made were, in fact, quite good but it was a lot of work for what I got. It’s all about passion, and if you are passionate about preserving your food then you will love this!

Brining

The freshly harvested olives are soaked in a saltwater bath for two to six months, depending on whether the olives have been pitted or not. If they are not pitted, it takes a long time for the salt to penetrate the skin and remove the bitter compounds. To speed the process up, pit the olives. The olives must be tasted periodically to know when they are ready.

Lye Curing

Sometimes called “Spanish Curing,” this method is done by washing the harvested olives in a Caustic Soda or Sodium Hydroxide solution for about 8-12 hours to remove the bitter compounds. The olives then need to be washed extremely well, three or four times, to ensure none of the lye remains on the olives. The olives are then left in a natural brine solution to ferment. The whole process takes 1-3 months. 

Water Curing

Fresh olives can be split or cut and soaked in water to remove the bitter compounds. This process takes the shortest amount of time, but water curing removes less oleuropein, so olives treated this way will retain some bitterness. They then need to be packed in brine for storage. 

Curing Olives in Water

This is the easiest of all the methods. The newly harvested olives must be first scored or split open to allow the water to penetrate deep inside. They are then left to soak in cold water for a minimum of 4 weeks, and the water needs to be changed daily. The olives are preserved in brine until ready to eat. The process removes the least amount of oleuropein, making them slightly more bitter and less complex in terms of flavor. 

Dry Salt Curing

This method is typically used for smaller varieties of olives. The olives are covered in salt for around 4-6 weeks until much of the moisture and bitter compounds have been pulled from the olives, leaving them slightly wrinkly looking. The water expelled from the olives must be removed from the salt bucket so the olives don’t rot.  

Air Curing

This is the least common of all the methods used to cure olives as it can only be done with the Nyon (grown in France) and the Thassos (grown in Greece) varieties. The olives are left to naturally cure in the sun, resulting in a very chewy olive, a bit bitter but very enjoyable and special. 

close up hands holding freshly picked tuscan olives green and black

How to Cure at Olives at Home

If you want to try curing olives at home, we suggest either a water or brine solution.  Manzanillo, mission, and kalamata olives are the best varieties for this. 

Water Curing Olives at Home

  1. Harvest dark, ripe olives. They will be the most mature and thus, the least bitter. Be sure the olives don’t have pests nor are bruised or damaged. 
  2. Wash the olives well.
  3. Score, slice or crack open the olives depending on how you want the result to be. Be careful not to cut the pit by mistake.
  4. Cure the olives: Cover them with cold water making sure they are all submerged and change the water at least once a day (to prevent mold from growing) until the bitterness is gone. Cover lightly with a lid and keep in a dark, cool spot.
  5. Let sit, changing the water twice a day. Once the bitterness is gone, you are ready to place the olives in a brine. Start tasting them after about four weeks. 
  6. Drain the olives and move them to individual glass or ceramic containers. Cover with a brine made from 1 part salt, 2-3 parts vinegar and 10 parts water. 
  7. Keep refrigerated for up to a year (if not contaminated).

Brining Olives at Home

  1. Harvest dark, ripe olives. They will be the most mature and thus, the least bitter. Be sure the olives don’t have pests, nor are they bruised or damaged. 
  2. Wash the olives well.
  3. Score, slice or crack the olives depending on how you want the result to be. Be careful not to cut the pit by mistake.
  4. Make the brine using 1 part salt to 10 parts water and cover the olives completely. Cover lightly with a lid and keep in a dark, cool spot.
  5. Let sit for 3-6 weeks, changing the brine once a week. 
  6. Once the bitterness is gone, drain the olives and move them to individual glass or ceramic containers. Cover with a brine made from 1 part salt, 2-3 parts vinegar, and 10 parts water. 
  7. Keep refrigerated for up to a year (if not contaminated).

Italian Olives FAQ

What is the difference between black canned olives and olives you find in a deli used for cocktails?

The main difference is that the canned olives are not fermented but rather they are processed quickly with lye and then aerated with carbon dioxide. They are then further processed to make them black and shiny. Cocktail olives do not undergo all this processing, making them much more natural and different tasting among themselves. 

Can you cure green/under ripe olives?

Yes! Depending on the type of the olive, they can be picked under ripe, affecting the flavor and texture of the final product. The final color, texture and taste of an olive depends not only on the variety but at what point it is harvested and how it is fermented. 

Why do olives have distinct flavors?

This is because of the variety but also because of how ripe they were when they were harvested, the climate they were grown in, the rainfall they got and how the trees were maintained. The taste is also determined by how much fermentation goes on during the curing process. All varieties have a different amount of bacteria, creating more or less fermentation.  

How do Italians eat olives?

In many ways including pasta dishes, stewed meats, alongside fish, in various sauces and as they are with cocktails.