There’s a small type of cured dark olive that is widely popular in Gaeta, Italy. Gaeta is the ancestral home of my family, on both my paternal and maternal sides. In the “old country” these olives are present at many meals, are a must for antipasto trays, and are served as snacks at bars and restaurants. These little olives have quite a history. Following is an excerpt from a project that I am working on that puts the existence of this olive into historical context….
Oliva di Gaeta
by Ray Vaudo
I had heard of Gaeta olives since I was a young child, as my parents and their friends occasionally mentioned them. But I had no idea of the rich history of this smallish black olive and to the extent that it is coveted in culinary circles.
Gaeta olives are typically small round olives with a slightly tapered shape and range from a dark pink to purple color when harvested. When the carefully controlled fermentation process is complete, the soft flesh must detach completely from the pit. The Itrana black table olive is the variety that is used.
This olive variety has been known since ancient times. The Roman poet, Virgil, mentioned them in Book 12 of the Aeneid in the late 1st century BCE when he wrote, “Here there haply had stood a bitter-leaved wild olive, sacred to Faunus, a tree worshiped by mariners of old; on it, when rescued from the waves, they were wont to fix their gifts to the god of Laurentum and hang their votive raiment; but the Teucrians, unregarding, had cleared away the sacred stem, that they might meet on unimpeded lists.”
When the sailors of the Aeneas arrived in the Gulf of Gaeta, they collected olives that had fallen into the ocean from the olive trees along the coast. They quickly discovered that the bitterness of the olives had been removed by the salty seawater which made them sweeter and very appealing.
Hundreds of years later, in the testament of the Duke of Gaeta Docibile II in the year 954, it refers to the olive groves in the Gaeta area. The name, Gaeta olive, can be traced to the area governed by the Duchy of Gaeta and the name of the port from which the ships left to transport these black olives to various markets. Their popularity as an export continued to increase and peaked in the 1400s when they were exported to all of the main ports in the Mediterranean.
Today, Gaeta olives are harvested in the spring when they have ripened to a reddish or dark violet color. They are processed in a controlled brine bath for five or more months to complete their fermentation. This results in an olive that is firm, but tender, with a sweet and slightly salty vinegar flavor. They are packaged in their filtered fermentation brine which resembles the color of red wine by the completion of the fermentation process.
Their unique salty, but sweet taste, and the soft pulp which separates easily from the pit makes them a choice ingredient on antipasto trays, and in salads, sauces, pastas, and other dishes served in homes and restaurants. Gaeta olives are also a must ingredient in Gaeta’s signature dish, the Tiella, a double-crusted dough filled typically with locally grown vegetables and/or freshly caught fish.
This centuries-old local culinary standard, originally made by the wives of farmers and fisherman, is typically eaten at room temperature and is still a ubiquitous “finger food” in Gaeta eateries and home kitchens.
Although their existence and popularity has been well-known since the Middle Ages, the need to carefully document the history and production process did not occur until recently. The documentation process became necessary to ward off potential copycats and to protect growers and producers in the area.
Through the intense efforts of growers, producers and historians, the Oliva di Gaeta received Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in December 2016. The Itrana black olives used must be grown within the 44 identified municipalities in the provinces of Latina, Frosinone, and Rome, in the Lazio Region and in the Province of Caserta in the Campania Region and must follow strictly designated production methods.
Gaeta olives are now available in specialty markets in the United States. However, they are more prevalent in the eastern and some mid-western cities that had the largest waves of Italian immigration from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. They are also available at Amazon through third-party vendors, but they are often sold out.
At the very least, be prepared to pay high shipping costs if you’re able to put them in your online cart. Of course, if you are lucky enough to visit Gaeta, make sure to pack some gallon-size resealable plastic bags and save some space in your suitcase for a couple of sealed tubs of these famous olives. Don’t go back home without them!