The Tasty, Healthy, and Nourishing Olive
By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the world of mythology, the olive tree is supposed to have been first grown in the Garden of Eden. More realistically, according to historians, it has been cultivated along the Syrian coast since 4000 B.C. and since that time it has been one of the most useful plants in the world – its products employed in a myriad of ways. In ancient times, a single olive tree provided a family with a year-round supply of food, oil for healing, fuel for cooking; and wood for housing, furniture, and jewelry. Hence, for millennia, it was a symbol of wealth, stability, and the tranquillity of a self-sufficient farming society.
In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena created the olive tree to win a dispute with Poseidon, the god of the sea. The Bible makes at least 140 references to olives and their oil. In the story of Noah, the dove that heralds the new era after the deluge appears carrying an olive branch. In the Qur`an, the olive, called a Blessed Tree, has sacred associations. Even today its mystical lure continues. An olive branch, a token of peace since Biblical times, graces the flag of the United Nations.
During our time, the olive tree remains a very valued plant to the farmers of the Mediterranean countries, accounting for 98% of the olives grown in the world. Worldwide, Spain is the largest producer of olives, generating 50% of the European production. Its 160 million trees produce around 800,000 tons of olive oil – a liquid gold that is the lifeblood of that country. Italy is the second largest producer followed by Greece, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey and, beyond the Mediterranean, olives are grown in parts of Australia, California and South America.
Olives are the fruit of an evergreen tree with small greenish-silvery leaves that bear clusters of fragrant white flowers. The plant, started from a cutting, grows in height from 10 to 40 feet and begins to bear fruit when 4 to 8 years old. It takes about 15 years to fully mature but will bear fruit for hundreds of years. Some trees in the eastern Mediterranean are believed to be over 2000 years old.
The olives are harvested by hand or by striking the tree with long sticks to bring the fruit down to the ground. They come in dozens of shapes and colors, varying in size from half an inch to two inches. About 40% are picked green before they mature; the remainder is harvested as they ripen in various shades ranging from purple-blue to black, at which time they reach their maximum oil content – 100 kg olives will produce 25 kg oil.
The oil comes in at least five grades. The top is the extra-virgin, which is obtained from pressed green olives that are picked by hand. Virgin comes from the first pressing of black olives; Refined from the second pressing; Pure, a mixture of virgin and refined; and Sulphide, extracted with solvents from the third pressing.
Olives and their oil are, in the main consumed as a food, especially by the people living in the countries that border on the Mediterranean. However, despite the fact that olives are cultivated principally for the table, their oil has always been employed as a medicine.
In the times of the Prophets, it was believed that olive oil would cure every malady except the illness of death. There is a legend that Adam, suffering from pain, complained to God who sent Gabriel down from heaven with an olive tree. He presented it to Adam, telling him to plant it, then to pick the fruit and extract the oil, using it whenever he had pain – assuring him that it would cure all ills.
Today’s Middle Eastern farmers believe that if they drink half a cup of olive oil before breakfast, it will clear their system and they will live a long life free from disease. Their cure for an infected ear is a little heated olive oil dropped into the ear in a number of doses and for sore muscles, the remedy is a message of olive oil. In these countries, many people even maintain, as had their ancestors in ancient times, that olive oil is a powerful sexual stimulant.
And they have a point. Important in the human diet, olives are characterized by high nutritional and health values. Dried olives contain 51.90% fat, 30.07% water, 10.45% carbohydrates, 5.24% protein, and 2.33% mineral matter, being exceptionally rich in potassium. Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat, has the ability to reduce the LDL (bad) cholesterol without reducing the HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood.
The energy-giving properties of olives are more than that contained in any other fruit or vegetable and the calcium content is greater than in other fruit, vegetables, fish, shellfish or cockle-fish. Fresh cow’s milk contains the same quantity of calcium as olives, but olives have more vitamin A than that contained in milk. Hence, olives are an excellent food for pathological cases that require intensified quantities of calcium.
Scientifically, even though olive oil will not make a sick person well, it may help keep one from becoming sick. The oil is excellent for sufferers from debility or those who are under-weight. Drunk pure, 2 ounces per day makes a superb laxative. Soothing for insect bites, itching, and bruises, the oil also contains Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that plays a role in reducing the risk of cancer and heart diseases. This has led the World Health Organization to recommend olive oil for cardiovascular diseases and to promote bone growth.
The last pressing of the oil is often utilized in the manufacture of soap while Virgin olive oil is employed as a hairdressing. There is no oil as good for the skin. Olive oil is easily absorbed into the subcutaneous layers, keeping the skin supple and the body flexible and pliant.
In ancient Greece pure olive oil was a highly prized luxury for anointing the body. Mediterranean beauties have, through the ages, employed undiluted olive oil as a massage ingredient to soften their delicate skin and to enhance their flowing black tresses, which have inspired many a romantic Arab and Latin poet. It is believed that Cleopatra always had an olive oil massage before her trysts with Caesar and Anthony.
At times, after the olives are crushed to produce the oil, the pulverized pits are then made into firebricks, which make excellent fuel material. Many family meals in the Mediterranean basin are cooked over the glowing embers of olive-pit bricks. Also, the trimmed dead branches of the trees are another source of cooking material, which the olive tree adds to the meager energy resources of the Mediterranean peasant farmers.
In the Middle East, the many fine pieces of furniture in the peasants’ homes which have been passed down from family to family through the ages, and the beautiful artifices that for hundreds of years have helped keep the tourist industry alive, are made from the wood of the olive tree. Although not now as prevalent as in ancient times, necklaces made from the polished pits of the olives adore the necks of many maidens, especially tourists from the West coming to enjoy the exotic Mediterranean lands.
Nevertheless, it is like a food that olives reach their epitome of usefulness. Their highly digestible oil can be drizzled on toast and ripe tomatoes or brushed on grilling chicken or fish. The oil is employed in all types of cooking and in countless salad dressings, adding an appetizing gusto to food. Olive oil keeps well but should be stored in opaque containers. When exposed to sunlight it becomes rancid and develops an offensive odor.
As to olives themselves, they are eaten as appetizers; form part of the ingredients in many dishes and are often utilized for decoration. No breakfast in the Middle Eastern countries is complete without at least one type of olive being served; and no morning, afternoon or evening snack is usually offered without a few types of this ancient vegetable-fruit.
In the Mediterranean countries, olives are usually pickled in brine or oil, but there are many varieties of olives and the type of pickling is purely a matter of taste. Green ones are picked unripe and usually pickled in brine; black ones are left to ripen on the tree and are often preserved in oil, but may also be pickled in brine. Both types can be stuffed with almonds, pimentos or anchovies; or embellished with hot pepper, lemon peel, sumac, thyme and other herbs or spices.
The pickled olives are usually sold in bulk in food markets throughout most of the world. Unlike the tasteless canned olives on many North American supermarket shelves, these prepared olives are very tasty, adding a zesty flavor to any dish in which they are used as an ingredient. As they have for millennia, olives remain today a healthy and nourishing food for millions.