However, evidence of olive oil can be traced as far back as 5,000 B.C. in Mediterranean countries, which adopted this glorious delicacy, Picture an ancient Greek or Roman scribe pouring over some precious parchment scroll when munching on olives. The Roman poet Horace consumed them daily and proclaimed them to be one of the world’s perfect foods. (There were not a lot of food options back then, but he was definitely onto something.)
They are cited frequently in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and of course who can dismiss the venerable olive branch which symbolizes peace. Hebrew cuisine appreciated the fruit as well as the oil, which was considered holy and had many uses, such as oil lamps, personal grooming and spiritual ceremonies.
The island of Crete made a major influence in the olive industry several thousand years B.C. but has been dwarfed in contemporary times by bigger and more populated nations. (Who knows, maybe Columbus had something to do with it.) It is thought that Spanish missionaries in the 18th century brought the olive tree into U.S. land as they traveled up through Mexico, finding their way to the rich soils of California before it was settled and achieved statehood. Still a significant industry in Spain, they boast the greatest production with approximately 6 million tons each year. Italy and Greece place third and second with 2.5 to 3.5 million tons yearly. There is no question that the Mediterranean countries lead the pack, as 90 percent of all olives are pressed to get their precious oil, while the remaining 10% left whole. In general, more olives are produced than grapes, globally.
No doubt about it, the U.S. utilizes a hefty share of the annual yield, not only the California harvest but imports as well. We may not have brought them over on the Mayflower, but once the influx of immigrants began, we were quick to embrace them. Now many food shops feature an olive bar, priced by the pound.
The olive tree is unusually hardy, and many have been identified throughout Mediterranean countries as over a thousand years old and still producing. They prefer sun and hot weather and do not become thirsty as frequently as other agricultural crops, thus making them well-suited to Southern climates. Ancient Roman Emperors ordered them to be planted in the Forum. Greeks treasured their Kalamata variety, native to the area that bears its name. In South America, the nation of Argentina has proclaimed olive oil a”national food” and is attempting to enter the world economy. They may not be a major player yet, but they’ve set their sights on this popular export.
After harvesting, olives require healing since they cannot be eaten directly from the tree. (Don’t even think about it.) A lengthy procedure is required, using lye, brine, salt or water, with a fermentation period to eliminate the strong sour taste. For oil production, the first press is Extra Virgin, the highest quality. The following press is simple olive oil. It’s interesting to note that most cooking oils require industrial or chemical refining, while olive oil is an exception. (No wonder it is great for all of us.)
Coming late to the party, Japan’s island of Shodoshima, (or affectionately called”Olive Island”), creates a high quality olive oil which started in 1908. Clearly not a player in the business, the Japanese people seem content with their own special crop and keep it to themselves.
So don’t limit your repertoire to simply eating them whole or fishing them from martinis. Cast your net wider and include them in many different recipes. They add flavor, color and a bit of oomph to just about everything. But just as a cautionary note, if you do not buy the pitted ones, then please give your guests and family a”heads up!” Nobody wants a wonderful meal spoiled having an emergency trip to the dentist.