Ancient Methods Of Preserving Olives


We continue our perusal of Roman organic and agricultural practices.  Columella (XII.49) give the following instructions for the preparation of olives.

Basic Method

1.  During September and October, while the olive harvest is ongoing, the bitter Pausean olive (acerba Pausea) can be harvested.

2.  The olive should be crushed and soaked for a short time in warm water, then drained.

3.  Olives should then be mixed with fennel and mastic seeds, together with rough salt that has been “toasted.”   (cum cocto sale modice permixtam).  The smoky salt will impart a nice flavor to the whole.

4.  This entire affair is then put into a jar.  Over the jar of olives, salt, and spices, pour enough “must” to cover them.  Must (mustum) is unfermented or only partially fermented grape juice.  Then pack in additional fennel on the top, and seal the jar.

5.  After three days of immersion, the olives can be eaten.


Another Method

This method of olive preservation is good for the Pausean, orchite, shuttle, or royal olive.  It’s very similar to the method given above.

1.  Soak the olives in cold brine for some time.

2.  Line the bottom of a large jar with fennel.  In a separate pot, place fennel and mastic.

3.  Take the olives out of the brine and squeeze them dry.  Then mix them with the fennel and mastic.

4.  Put the olives and spices in the large jar with the fennel at the bottom.  Then fill the container with an equal mixture of brine and must.

5.  Cut up finely some leeks, rue, mint, and Italian parsley, and add these herbs to the jar of olives.  Their flavor will infuse the whole.  You can also add a little peppered vinegar, honey, olive oil, or mead if you desire.

5.  Olives so treated will keep for a whole year.


There are some good variations on these preparations:

1.  When olives have been treated with brine, you can pour out the liquid and replace it with two parts of boiled must and one part of vinegar.  This also works well.

2.  Columella tells us that (XII.49.10) he has crushed good olives in a press, mixed them with toasted salt, fennel, mastic, and rue.  The berries are then left alone for three hours, so that they absorb some of the salt.  All of this is then stored in jars, and covered in good olive oil.  Then dried fennel is pressed on top, and then the jars are sealed.

Black Olives

1.  Dark olives should be picked in good weather and placed in baskets.  To every modius of olives you should add three heminae of salt.


(The modius and hemina were Roman units of measure.  The modius contained 16 sextarii or 1/6 of a medimmus, a “peck”.  A hemina was one-half of a sextarius).

2.  The olives should be then left for thirty days to allow the “lees” to drip out.

3.  Then dump the olives in a tub and sponge off as much salt as you can.  The olives can then be packed in jars, using must and fennel as preservatives as described above.

Another Black Olive Preparation

1.  The black olives are picked, sifted, and cleaned.

2.  The olives are then put into a mill and crushed.  When made into a pulp, toasted salt is added for flavor.

3.  Then other dry spices are added:  caraway, cumin, fennel, and anise seed.

4.  The olives and spices are then jarred, and oil poured on top of them to fill the jars.

These, then, are Columella’s basic olive preservation recipes.

Read More:  How The Romans Collected Beehives