How to Recognise a Good Table Olive

The table olive market here in South Africa is just starting to flourish. The solid foundation will support its growth into a successful and valuable industry amongst the new olive producing countries.

Extra virgin olive oil has a set of standards or conditions, performed both in a laboratory and by a tasting panel, that have to be adhered to in order to bear the label ‘Extra Virgin’. The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) has stipulated a set of standards pertaining to the physical attributes of table olives, or rather, the visual defect limits, but no standard is available for determining what a good olive should taste like.

In the global market, a myriad of different styles of table olives can be found, many of which are very provincial or regional. In countries where eating olives, and especially processing thereof, is relatively new, it is important that we have a benchmark against which we can gauge the quality of a table olive. Equally important is that the consumer is aware of what to look for in a good quality, tasty table olive. Highlighting these attributes will protect the consumer, after being served second rate product for long enough, from believing that this is as good as it gets!

The Characteristics of a Quality Table Olive

The first characteristic of a product that we notice is, of course, appearance. This is a vital attribute that will make us decide whether to try the product or not. There is a movement amongst some consumers that precludes any fruit and vegetable product which looks too good. The aim should be to produce table olives that not only taste good, but that look as good as possible, these two characteristics are not mutually exclusive.

The physico-chemical characteristics, which are measured by instruments, need not be discussed here.

The organoleptic characteristics of a food product, which describe the flavour thereof, encompass three sensory perceptions, that of smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory) and mouthfeel (tactile).


A well-prepared olive has a clean acceptable aroma. The aroma will give a good indication of how the processing was managed as most of the volatile components are a result of the fermentation process. In the absence of any fermentation, the aroma is usually that of the added ingredients, like garlic, herbs and various other flavourings.

An off-fermentation will be noticeable on the nose, and any off-odour is totally unacceptable in quality table olives.


An olive should have a degree of firmness in the flesh, without being tough or woody. The skin of the fruit should not be too tough, and the flesh should detach from the pit quite readily.

The texture of an olive is determined by numerous factors, the most important of which are fruit ripeness when harvested, and cultivar. The methods of processing will then play an equally important role, which can either maintain the texture of the fruit or compromise it.

In conclusion, the most important aspect is to realise that table olives vary to a vast extent with respect to the attributes mentioned above. It is for the consumer to experience as many different styles and flavours as possible and in so doing, build up a profile of the olives of choice. Awareness of the factors that constitute a quality product can positively benefit the consumer in this choice


The taste and flavour of a food product is generally rather subjective – it depends on what one is accustomed to. When wine is consumed, the trend is often for non-wine drinkers to start with a sweeter wine, and then to progress to the more dry products. In the table olive sphere, the consumer not accustomed to olives, usually prefers a more bland product. Once hooked on these little delicacies, the consumer then seeks out products with a lot more flavour, the natural olive flavour in particular.

A fully fermented table olive should display a balance between the natural flavour of the fruit, the natural lactic acid and the added salt and vinegar. The acid produced by the fermentation is usually perceived as fully integrated with the fruit flavours, and therefore far more appealing than acid that has been added to the final product.