Discovering the olive

The Athens News

By Connie Phillipson

The Ancients were generally in agreement that no fruit tree had a more profound influence on the growth of civilisation than the olive. A close runner-up may be the grape vine, and Pliny the Elder made this point when he wrote that, "save for the vine, there is no plant that bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive".

The accolades which the olive and olive oil received from the ancients are far too numerous to even begin to list here. But all these laurels were accorded to the tree of Athena long before we knew that the olive and the extracted olive oil are the very best sources of monounsaturated fats, so useful for our health and welfare. The ancients bestowed these kudos on the olive because they recognised its value as a nutritive food, and perhaps partly because it could serve as a lighting medium. But this last use has been wildly exaggerated by archaeologists, pressed to explain the number and size of pithoi (very large pots) they found at excavations, before the technology was available to analyse the contents of these pots and of the accompanying "oil-lamps". More than a dozen such "lamps" found at Mochlos in Crete, analysed by high performance liguid chromatography, showed that the remnants of their contents consisted of beeswax, not olive oil. Which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense. Why burn olive oil and eat beeswax? Our ancestors couldn't have had been so impractical.

Theories abound regarding the origin of the olive tree, but it seems a certainty that it is an east Mediterranean native. The wild olive (Olea europaea sylvestris) grows naturally all around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Basin, and Crete seems an excellent place to assign its origin and early cultivation, without excluding any other area of the immediate region. Whatever its origin, it is now certain,that Cretans ate olive oil from way back in prehistoric times. Cooking pots found in the Gerani Cave located a mere seven kilometres from Rethymno, showed the remains of a stew where lots of olive oil was used. The date of the meal is approximately 4,500 BC.

Eventually the tree in its cultivated form reached Attica and the place that would be later called Athens. This was the tree that the goddess Athena gave to the followers of King Cekrops, in exchange for the honour of naming their city after her. Athena as it turned out was very wise, and the local inhabitants for once, even wiser. The soil of Attica was generally too poor for many crops and certainly for wheat. It was not even good enough for pasturage. Few domesticated animals could really prosper in these circumstances. The olive tree provided the missing fatty acids and completed the diet of the inhabitants. What is more, although neither the goddess nor its worshippers knew it, these fatty acids turned out to be the healthiest fats that anyone could have wished for. Athenian olive oil was reputed to be the best olive oil in the ancient world. Together with the vine and the selfless help of Dionysus, olive oil and wine in their capacity as protective foods established the modern version of the Mediterranean Diet, of which you and I are the undeserving but grateful recipients.

One American who sensed the value of the olive tree and its products was that enlightened farmer, Thomas Jefferson. It may seem incredible, says Waverley Root, but olive oil appears to have been unknown in -Paris until the Revolution. Thus in 1786, when Jefferson was minister to France, the equivalent of today ambassador he wrote to the US Consul in Bordeaux to have sent to him "12 pint bottles of best Provence oil". But of course Jefferson might have simply wanted what he specified: the "best Provence oil", which might have been unavailable in Paris at the time. That does not necessarily imply the absence of all olive oil in the French capital or north of the Louare. For the poet Ronsard also liked his salads dressed with oil from Provence, while the philosopher Montaigne raved about "the excellence of Italian oil".

Be that as it may, Jefferson tried to introduce the olive tree in the US southeast, no doubt recognising early the similarity of climatic factors that would eventually allow olive trees to prosper in California. A far-seeing agriculturist, he called the olive tree "the worthiest plant to be introduced into America", and wrote, "Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious. Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread, because there is such an infinitude of vegetables, which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment. " As a result of such convictions, he planted olive cuttings in Monticello as early as 1774, but many failed to take root, and the rest were destroyed by an unusually cold spell that befell Virginia. He sent some 500 olive tree cuttings from Aix-en-Province to South Carolina in 1791, but as he wrote 25 years later, if any of them survived it would be in the form of a curiosity: "Not a single Orchard has been planted."

What Jefferson did not know is that while he was trying to introduce the olive tree to Virginia and the Carolinas without apparent success, the Franciscan monks who moved to California from Mexico, had already successfully planted olive trees by 1769. Some of these trees survive to the present day, but they were not appreciated by the local inhabitants any better than these planted by Jefferson in the US southeast. It was not till the beginning of the 20th century that they began to cultivate the olive in California and in real earnest.

In the area of the western Mediterranean, the olive tree prospered best in Spain, but not because the soil and climatic conditions were best suited for olive cultivation. The principal motivation came from the Moors. Unlike the rest of Western Europe that used lard as the chief edible fat for many centuries, this was forbidden for the Muslim Moors. Olive oil was the only alternative for a long time, and thus the cultivation of the olive tree in Spain flourished and Spain is still the largest exporter of olive oil in the world. Fortune works in strange ways: It sadly disappointed an illuminated agriculturist like Thomas Jefferson, but favoured the inhabitants of Spain because their conquerors would not eat pork.

Lamb and Olive Balls*
Yields 10 large balls

3 slices bread, white or wholewheat
1 kilo fairly lean ground lamb 125g feta cheese, crumbled 1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1 egg, beaten
1(2 tbs cinnamon
1(2 tsp hot red pepper flakes 3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bunch cilantro, chopped 3 tbs olive oil

Cut the crusts from the bread; soak the slices in water, wring them out, and crumble them. With your fingers, mix the lamb well with the bread, feta, olives, egg, cinnamon, hot pepper flakes, garlic, and cilantro.

Form into 10 large meatballs. In a heavy frying pan, cook the meatballs in the olive oil until crisp and brown on one side; then turn and brown the balls on all sides, no more than 10 minutes, over a fairly high heat. The meat should be rare. Serve plain with bulgur wheat or in sandwiches, or in a spicy tomato sauce over pasta:

*From The Olive Feast by Maggie Blyth Klein (Aris Books)

Mashed-potato cakes with olives and capers
Yields about 4 cakes, serving 2

1 (250g) baking potato
1 tsp drained bottled capers, chopped fine
4 Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, chopped fine
1 large egg, beaten lightly
1/3 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
lemon wedges as an accompaniment

Peel the potato, cut it into 15cm pieces, and on a rack in a saucepan steam it over boiling water, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it is very tender. Let the potato cool for 5 minutes, in a bowl mash it, and stir in the capers, the olives, the egg, and salt and pepper to taste. Scoop the mixture by 1/4 cup measures, form the scoops into I cm-thick cakes, and coat the cakes with the bread crumbs. In a large heavy skillet heat the oil over moderately high heat until it is hot, but not smoking, and in it saute the cakes, turning them once, for 4 minutes, or until they are golden.
Serve the cakes with the lemon.

HCS readers can view other excellent articles by Connie Phillipson in the News & Issues and especially the sections of our extensive, permanent archives at the URL
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