Olives have been cultivated since prehistoric times in Asia Minor. From there, they spread all over the world. Today they are commercially produced throughout the Mediterranean area--especially Greece, the Mahgreb, and Spain--but also in California, New Zealand, and even South Africa.
From the beginning, apparently, the calming and healing properties of its oil have been recognized. Thus the olive branch has long been used as a symbol of peace. Pouring oil on troubled waters--not to mention the dove bringing back a branch of olive as the first vegetation seen by Noah after the Deluge.
In Greek mythology, Athena gave this luscious drupe to mankind as a gift--and, in gratitude, citizens of Attica were said to have named the city of Athens after her.
In the Mideast, the story is told of Adam suffering from pain and complaining to God. At that, Gabriel descended from heaven with an olive tree, presented it to Adam, and said, "plant it, then pick the fruit and press out its oil. It will cure your pain and all sickness." Indeed, early Mideast civilizations believed it would cure every illness except death. And to this day, many drink half a cup of olive oil before breakfast to keep all systems well lubricated.
One writer observes, "It is quite affecting to observe how much the olive tree is to the country people. Its fruit supplies them with food, medicine and light; its leaves, winter fodder for the goats and sheep; it is their shelter from the heat and its branches and roots supply them with firewood. The olive tree is the peasant's all in all."
The first olive tree was planted in California around 1769 by Franciscan missionaries. In fact, all the "mission olives" grown today in California probably derive from trees grown at the Franciscan mission in San Diego, probably from Mexican seeds. This particular species--and there are some 35 altogether--is especially good for its oil.
The trees themselves are exquisite--remember Van Gogh's branches, twisted in pain and pleasure, having dark and sunny moments. My first memory of them "in the bark" was watching beautiful Moroccan women, dressed in bright red and brilliant white djellabas, standing by the roads in the Rif mountains beating the trees with paddles so that the multicolored fruits showered around them like pointillist brush strokes. Consider that a ton--a TON--of olives produces about 50 gallons of oil.
These evergreen trees can attain a great age--some in the eastern Mediterranan are estimated to be over 2,000 years old. They grow to a height of 20-40 feet and begin to bear fruit sometime between 4 and 8 years old. They bear lanceolate leaves and bloom with little whitish flowers that are wonderfully fragrant. Tennyson talks about Catullus' "olive-silvery Sirmio" in Frater Ave atque Vale.
So why are olives different colors? I'd actually attained quite an age myself before I realized they weren't different "kinds" of olives at all--but just the same basic olive at different stages of ripeness and cured in different ways. As if we picked apples at different stages of greeness and finally of red (or otherwise) ripeness, boiled them up with sugar and radically different spices, then served them up as gourmet sauces and side dishes.
All fresh olives are bitter (from their oleuropein) and tough--whether they're unripe and green--any shade of getting-ripe and red/purpley--or ripe and black. So they have to be:
1. separated according to color and size, then
2. dunked in some lye treatment (traditionally wood ash--just like in the making of soap), then
3. cured in either dry salt, wet salt (brine), or oil--or dry roasted, and, finally,
4. packed in either oil or vinegar with herbs, spices, and other flavorings.
In Casablanca's olive souq in the Habbous, you can wander past literally hundreds of barrels of green, red, purple, and black olives--tasting whatever looks good, buying a kilo or demi-kilo of whatever you like. I confess I was a particular sucker for those fat, pointy yellow-green olives, cracked then larded with thyme and garlic. One day, idly working my way through a demi-kilo (maybe 35-40) of olives while cooking dinner, I wondered about caloric content. FIFTEEN CALORIES A PIECE!!! Do I care? No. But I'm glad it isn't so easy or so cheap to get these heavenly drupes in the United States.
The sky is the limit when you're making your own, but some traditional kinds have become well known commercially. Here are a few:
1. Kalamata: purple and brine-cured
2. Nicoise: red-brown, sour, and lightly salted
3. Picholine: tiny, pointed with a tangy fruit flavor, from Southern France.
4. Moulin de Daudet: also from Southern France. The black are rich like licorice; the green like pine. Both are sometimes flavored with "les herbes des Provence." And what about the "light" olive oil that's sold in stores--is it lower in calories? Not at all. It has the same 120 calories per Tablespoon, but is lighter in color and flavor. Caveat emptor.
OLIVES - extracted from the pages of Gernot Katzer - http://www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/index.html
Origin - Cultivation of the olive tree is known in the Eastern Mediterranean since five millennia. Whether the plant really stems from these regions or is a native to Central Asia is subject to debate.
It is difficult to name any plant of more cultural and historic significance to the Mediterranean than the olive. Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans knew and valued olive oil. The olive tree is mentioned in the Homeric epics (see poppy) and olive branches were used, in oldest time, to decorate the winners of the Olympic Games; later, they were replaced by bay leaves. In the classic era of Greece, the olive was closely associated with the goddes Pallas Athene, a daughter of Zeus. Innumerous are the instances of olive in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testament (see pomegranate). The old Romans used olive oil extensively (see also silphion).
Olives are grown in the whole Mediterranean region and are a most important part of the diet in all Mediterranean countries: Olive oil is ubiquitously used as a cooking medium, and pickled olives are popular both a spice and as a snack.
Pickled olives are either black or green, depending whether they have been harvested unripe or ripe. Green olives are plucked unripe and treated with concentrated lye before pickling; by this procedure, which dated back to ancient Rome, bitterness is greatly reduced and the texture is improved. Black olives are plucked ripe; in Greece, they are treated with salt or undergo lactic fermentation, which results in an intense flavour. The brine olives are pickled in is often further enhanced by addition of some herbs (thyme, oregano) or garlic.
Pickled olives are a common decoration for cold dishes and tasty sauces. Of course, they fit best to specialities from the Mediterranean. Olive's flavour can be enhanced by preparing a paste of finely cut and squeezed olives with good olive oil. Adding anchovis (fermented fish), garlic and optionally capers to such a paste from black olives and olive oil gives tapenade, a Southern French speciality which tastes best with crunchy baguettes.
The use of olives for warm dishes is more or less restricted to Mediterranean cuisines. Tomato sauces containing onion, garlic, capers and green (or sometimes black) olives are characteristic of Italy; they may be made even tastier by adding fresh herbs (basil, oregano and rue). Sauces of this kind may be used to cook meat or poultry or they can simply be served together with noodles (pasta). Italian pizza is often prepared with olives, mostly so in Southern Italy.
Far more important than pickled olives is, however, olive oil, whose production consumes about 90% of olive acreage. The best quality, native olive oil extra (in Italy known as extra vergine), is quite variable in appearance and taste; after having tried some oils, most people develop different preferences. Some oils are subtle and flowery, others intense and fruity. It is probably a good idea to stock a few different varieties in the kitchen. Oils from second pressing is less aromatic, but better suited for frying. If you want to fry in extra vergine olive oil, the smoke point is raised by mixing the oil with butter, which might improve flavour anyway.
Many of the dishes of Southern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa owe much of their character to extra vergine olive oil. It is used for salads, for the Near East chick pea paste hummus (see sesame), cold appetizers (in Israel collectively known as mezes), spice pastes like Egypt dukka (see thyme) or the famous Provençal garlic mayonnaise aioli. Italian noodles (pasta) are often boiled with a spoonful of olive oil to prevent them from sticking together; before serving, olive oil is often added to increase the flavour.
By using olive oil instead of characterless vegetable oil, everyday dishes like shallow-fried vegetables (zucchini, aubergines, capsicum) get a typically Mediterranean character, even more if they are served with yoghurt or tomato sauce. Another trick is to sprinkle high-quality olive oil over fried vegetables and fish before serving.
The taste of olive oil harmonizes excellently with the fragrance of Mediterranean herbs. In the Mediterranean countries, olive oil is often flavoured with branches of rosemary, lavender, tarragon or, on Cyprus, with fresh capers. Most fresh herbs can be preserved in olive oil; their aroma compounds dissolve better in oil than in an aqueous medium. A most famous recipe of this kind is pesto, a paste of ground basil leaves in olive oil.
Not only the gentle fragrance of fresh herbs, but also the pungency of chiles has an affinity for a fatty medium. In Italy, small but powerful chiles (peperoncini) are often used to convert olive oil to a fiery condiment. I have seen a comparable chile oil in Arizona. According to personal taste, it may be used drop by drop or tablespoon by tablespoon. In some variants of the Yemeni condiment zhoug (see coriander), the heat of green chiles is transmitted by olive oil.
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