Tuesday, 23 June 2015

ALL ABOUT OLIVES

“Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.” -
 Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79)

In today’s post I’d like to highlight the olive, seeing how olive trees in Melbourne are full of fruit at the moment. To give it its proper name, Olea europaea. The olive is native to the Mediterranean region, tropical and central Asia and various parts of Africa. It has a history almost as long as that of Western civilisation, its development and cultivation being one of the first accomplishments of civilised people. At a site in Spain, carbon-dating has shown olive seeds found there to be eight thousand years old. Cultivation of the olive may have begun independently in two places, Crete and Syria. Archaeological evidence suggests that olives were being grown in Crete as long as 5,000 years ago. From Crete and Syria olives spread to Greece, Rome and other parts of the Mediterranean area.

Greek myth has the following to say about the origin of the olive: When Athens was first settled and people on the acropolis built the first homes there, they sacrificed to the gods and asked advice about what they should call their city. Poseidon, the god of the sea, vied with Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom, to be patron deity of Athens and give the fledgling city their respective name. Poseidon wanted the city called Poseidonia, while Athena wanted the city to be named Athenae.

Poseidon demonstrated his power and benevolence by striking the Acropolis with his three-pronged spear, which caused a spring of salt water to emerge. Athena, however, planted an olive tree. The people overwhelmingly chose Athena as the winner as her gift was seen as a more useful offering to the city. Athena’s paramount importance to the Athenians is seen in her magnificent temple, the Parthenon (= temple of the virgin goddess), which still crowns the Acropolis (= high city). The people of Athens were careful, all the same, to honour Poseidon as well. A magnificent temple of Poseidon is to be found on Cape Sounion to the SE of Athens.

The olive requires a long, hot growing season to properly ripen the fruit, no late spring frosts to kill the blossoms and sufficient winter chill to insure fruit set. Widespread cultivation occurs around the Mediterranean and Middle East. Olives are also grown commercially in California, Australia and South Africa.

Olives cannot be eaten raw off the tree and require pickling or other preparation in order to be eaten and preserved. Both green and black olives come from the same tree, but one is unripe, the other ripe. They are usually eaten as an accompaniment to meals, as hors d’oeuvres and as garnishes. Several recipes call for olives to be incorporated into them (Salade Niçoise, and Greek Salad are examples) and several new chefs have added olives to new recipes to give them a “Mediterranean” flavour. An illustrated atlas of different olive types can found in the Cook’sThesaurus site.

Perhaps the most useful property of olives is their oil content, which has been exploited from ancient times to produce olive oil. This oil has been used in cooking, in the making of cosmetics, soaps, and as a fuel for oil lamps. It is regarded as a healthy food oil because of its high content of monosaturated fats (especially oleic acid) and polyphenols. It can reduce the risk of arterial disease and heart attacks if it replaces other fats in the diet and if its consumption remains overall moderate (i.e. if it is included in the overall caloric intake).

The use of olive oil is ritual is paramount in many of the world’s religions. Christians, Jews and Moslems all regard the olive as a sacred tree and olive oil use is widespread in their rituals. Both Catholic and Orthodox churches use olive oil for consecration rituals. The Oil of Catehumen is the oil used to anoint the infant in baptism so as to turn away evil, temptation and sin. The Oil of the Sick is used in the ritual anointing, practiced in many Christian Churches, of a sick person to help them get well. The oil used in extreme unction (also called viaticum) is to bless them just before death and prepare them for their journey to the next world. Olive oil mixed with perfuming agents is called chrism (hence the Christ, the one who has been anointed). Chrism is used in a variety of Christian rituals, including ordination of priests and bishops, consecrations and anointing of monarchs. The Orthodox church still burns olive oil in traditional lamps within churches and in many homes in front of the household icons.

In Islam, the Koran recommends: “Consume olive oil and anoint it upon your bodies since it is of the blessed tree.” The Prophet Mohammed states that olive oil can cure seventy diseases. In the Jewish tradition, olive trees and olive oil are also blessed and in the festival of Hanukkah, olive oil was the traditional fuel of nine branched lamp, the menorah.

3 comments:

  1. Really interesting, excellent

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  2. Spouse and I were discussing the core food values in life, without which suicide would seem sensible. We agreed on green olives, avocado, tomato, mozarella and brie cheeses, sour cream, spring onions and potato.

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  3. There must be a famous Greek who said life without olives and olive oil is not worth living. I'm saying it anyway.:)

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