Olive types get their distinctive qualities based on their genetics, the conditions of their origin and how they're cured, resulting in hundreds of varieties. Factor in the common practices of marinating, seasoning and stuffing the olives, and the menu of olives grows infinitely.
Here are some popular varieties:
Alfonso: A large light purple or purplish-brown olive native to Chile that contains soft, almost mushy meat. It is brine-cured in vinegar and has a rich olive flavor that might be slightly bitter or acidic in taste. It is most often used to season stews, soups or other foods. This olive also might be referred to as an Alphonso olive.
Arbequinas: A popular Spanish olive; small, crisp and slightly bitter.
Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco. They're brine-cured and are very popular in olive mixes.
Bitetto: Named for the southern Italian town where they've been grown since biblical times. They're sweeter than most with almond tones.
Cerignola: These giant green olives are harvested in Cerignola, Italy, in the Puglia region. Their size makes them an impressive accompaniment to antipasti and good for stuffing with garlic, cheese, peppers, capers or anchovies.
Gaeta Italian black olive, dry-salt cured, then rubbed with oil, wrinkled in appearance, mild flavor, often packed with rosemary and other herbs
Halkidiki: The olive is elongated, slightly asymmetric with a pointed apex and a nipple present. The olive may vary in color from yellow, which is undesirable, to straw and light, golden green. It has a flavor that's briny with a pleasant sour taste. It's the most common Greek olive to stuff.
Kalamata: These popular purple-black Greek olives are cured in a red wine vinegar brine to create rich and smoky flavors.
Liguria: Italian black olive, salt-brine cured, with a vibrant flavor, sometimes packed with stems.
Lucques: This meaty light buttery olive is ideal for snacking. The pit is still intact, so care must be taken to not swallow the pit. It is a pleasure to chew this.
Lugano: Italian black olive, usually very salty, sometimes packed with olive leaves.
Manzanilla: This familiar olive from Spain is brine-cured, making for a refreshing crispness and slight smoky flavor. Traditionally, they're stuffed with pimientos.
Niçoise: These famed tiny, meaty olives from Nice, France, are tree-ripened. They're most popular use is in salade Niçoise.
Nyon: A small, jet black, shiny olive variety from southern France. Nyon olives have a mild, salty bitterness and are usually dry-cured and packed in olive oil.
Picholine: These French green olives are wonderfully crisp and crunchy, with a refreshingly tart flavor. Simple and elegant, they make perfect hors d'oeuvres.
Ponentine: Italian black olive, salt-brine cured then packed in vinegar, mild in flavor.
Sevillano: Californian, salt-brine cured and preserved with lactic acid, very crisp.
Sources: Whole Foods Market and California Rare Fruit Growers