I can’t quite remember when or where I first became enchanted by olive trees, sometime in my 20s probably. But I can remember being fascinated by their twisted, gnarled trunks, their tiny flowers and the delicate silvery grey leaves and that danced on the breeze and looked so romantic against the blue, blue sky.
I have to confess in those days I didn’t like their fruit, and because of my father’s restricted diet (fried food not allowed for health reasons) we never sampled the oil. But since then I have made up for lost time and can now appreciate both the fruit and oil. Forget fancy starters – a bowl of succulent olives or a small bowl of deliciously peppery olive oil and some wonderful fresh bread for dipping is my idea of heaven.
Olive tree ancestry
Olive trees can trace their ancestry back thousands of years. They are recorded a number of times in the Bible, and the Koran, as well as in Greek myths and legends and have long been recognised as a symbol of peace, wisdom and progress.
I can remember a pre-Easter trip to Italy one year and wandering into a church the Saturday before Palm Sunday – the church was strewn with olive branches waiting to be blessed and taken home by the congregation.
The trees flourished in the Mediterranean climate and soil, and as explorers set out from their native lands to discover and settle in new worlds, so olive trees would have accompanied them, and where the climate was suitable the trees flourished and do so still today. They are slow growing trees preferring light, somewhat poor, well-drained soil. Some trees standing today are 2000 years old.
There are around 850 million olive trees in the world, covering more than 10 million hectares of land and according to the International Olive Council’s data, Spain is the premier olive producing country.
By way of formal introduction olives technically are Olea europaea, of which there are thousands of cultivars, hence the wide variety of flavours and also textures of the fruit.
Harvesting takes place any time from September and can, depending on location, continue through to February. It can involve shaking the trees to dislodge the ripe fruit onto the ground or into nets, but this can result in the fruit being bruised, so very often the more favoured method, and certainly for table olives, is handpicking, requiring ladders and men collecting the fruit in baskets or bags tied round their waists or necks.
It takes skill to know when those small, hard fruit are ripe enough for picking.
Olives come in three colours: green, pink/maroon and black depending on their degree of ripeness: black being the ripest.
To make them palatable, they are naturally bitter, they need to be cured. Curing can be by water, brine or lye. Water cured olives are soaked in water which has to be changed daily and consequently is a slow process. Lye is the quickest industrial curing method but it also reduces the flavour of the olive.
Olives are good for you
With their high fibre content as well as minerals olives are highly nutritious. Up to 77% of the olive’s fat content is oleic acid – a monounsaturated fat; table olives are a good source of Vitamin E and black olives are a good source of iron. They are easy to digest, contain no harmful fats and come in at a mere 37kcal for each seven olives.
Olives can also be flavoured by soaking in a marinade or pitted and stuffed. For instance, make a marinade using olive oil seasoned with ingredients such as garlic, herbs, spices lemon or orange zest, or stuff them with slivers of cheese, almonds, anchovies, pimento or orange flesh.
Olive it! is a European campaign being run in the UK, Spain and France to celebrate table olives. Its aim to demonstrate the multitude of different ways that olives can be used. Helping the UK campaign are chefs Omar Allibhoy, Sophie Michell and José Pizarro.
To learn more about olives and discover new recipes and ways of using them why not sign up to the Olive it! campaign to receive their quarterly e-newsletter: http://www.oliveit.eu/keep-in-touch/
In the meantime why not try some of José Pizarro’s delicious olive recipes.