Freshly-picked olives are typically bitter and not very palatable. But let them age in a jar of olive oil or a salty brine for a little while, and they become tender and a bit chewy. The bitterness fades away and grassy, earthy, and fruity flavors come forward.
Every olive has its own unique characteristics and flavor profile. Greek kalamatas are well-known for their meaty texture and vinegary red wine flavors. French niçoise olives are small and black with an almost sweet flavor. By contrast, Italian cerignolas are big, green, and taste rather nutty. Most groceries with olive bars are happy to let you taste their selection before deciding what you'd like, and I recommend taking full advantage of this!
For a dinner party, I like to set out a bowl of mixed olives for snacking. Some wedges of hard cheese and a few cured meats make good companions. If there are any olives leftover at the end of the evening, they go into salads during the week, get tossed in pasta sauces, or go on top of pizza. That is, if I don't eat them all as a midnight snack.
Do you love cured olives? Which ones are you sure to have at parties?