There's history in Peru's olives

April 17, 2008 - Miami


(right) Peruvian olive salad combines boiled potatoes and slivered red onions in a zingy vinaigrette.

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On my first trip to Peru many years ago, I was captivated by the country's black olives. Juicy, meaty and flavorful, they were a far cry from the rubbery California black olives of U.S. salad bars and a welcome change from the sharp, briny green Manzanilla olives I grew up eating in Cuba.

They reminded me of Greek Kalamata olives, my favorite until that time, but they were larger, softer, more purple in color and mellower in taste, with just the right tang. Peruvians call them aceitunas de botija for the clay jars (botijas) in which they were stored when olive growing and curing began in Peru in the 16th century.

They are served as appetizers with cocktails like the pisco sour and used to garnish emblematic dishes like papas a la huancaína, boiled potato slices blanketed in creamy fresh cheese and walnut sauce; and causa a la limeña, a molded potato purée with a savory filling.

They are an integral part of Peruvian flavor, used in tart escabeches and as a briny condiment for savory stews and braises. Paired with sweet raisins in tamal and empanada fillings, they are links to the ancient Mediterranean, the cradle of olive cultivation.

According to popular lore, the first olive trees arrived in Lima from Spain in 1519 with the wealthy colonist Don Antonio de Ribera. On a trip to Seville, he had secured about 100 olive saplings to plant on his Peruvian farm (huerta). Only three survived the journey, and Don Antonio had them planted with great care and nervous expectations.

Though he had ordered his slaves to protect them round the clock, one of the saplings was stolen. The Peruvian historian Ricardo Palma, who wrote wonderful vignettes of life in colonial Peru, tells us the culprit was a man from Chile who planted the sapling on his farm on the shore of the Mapocho River.

In those early days, eating olives was a luxury. According to the Jesuit chronicler José de Acosta, guests at Peruvian dinner parties were lucky to get one olive at the beginning of a meal. By 1562, Palma writes, the standard had risen to three olives per dinner guest.

Intent on keeping the lucrative olive oil market in the hands of Andalusian merchants and landowners, the Spanish colonial government threw roadblocks in the way of its development in Peru. Still, the groves there produced wonderful green and black table olives (aceitunas de mesa).

Today, olives grow bountifully in several parts of Peru including Tacna, Arequipa, Ica, Moquegua, La Libertad and even Lima, where one can still see an ancient olive grove with gnarled old trees in the posh San Isidro neighborhood.

The Italian Ascolana Ternera and the Spanish Gordal and Manzanilla are among the varieties that thrive in Peru's dry coastal valleys, but most black olives are of the old Sevillean (Sevillana) variety, also known as criolla. They are picked ripe from May to July and cured in brine to retain their beautiful purple color.

At my South American restaurant, Cucharamama, we use aceitunas de botija in pizza toppings with red onions; in relishes with queso blanco, fava beans and Andean corn; in a creamy sauce for boiled octopus (pulpo al olivo), and as the main ingredient in a gorgeous salad with mealy boiled potatoes and slivered red onions. For me, they are much more than a condiment. They carry the imprint of tradition and are a seal of Peru's hybrid identity.

Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla is the chef/co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, N.J. Her latest book is The New Taste of Chocolate.