First of all, olives, Olea europa, are a FRUIT! Think of a plum, or an avocado, or any other drupe (a fruit with a pit). Olives may not be sweet, but in the botanical scheme of things, they are fruits. They are in the family Oleaceae, a large and varied family which includes all lilacs, forsythia, true ash as well as the noble olive. In fact most words for "oil" worldwide seem to be derived from or related to the genus name Olea.
Olives have long been a sign of peace. In ancient Mediterranean warfare, to take out your enemy's infrastructure, you just burned all their olive trees. In one bold move you deprived the village of oil to burn for light and for cooking, olives to eat, olive wood to burn, and the village was at your mercy. But in a few years their olive trees grew back, because of their deep wide roots, and this time they burned your olive trees down. Offering an olive branch became a sign of peace. Read more at this link.
In the time of the Biblical story of the Flood, Noah sent a dove (another symbol of peace) that returned with an olive branch, indicating the reappearance of dry land. Later on, in Deuteronomy, it was explained that the olive and its oil were one of seven foods necessary for the survival of the Hebrew people. Olive oil was sacred to the ancient Hebrews, who used it not just to cook with and for light (which was sacred as well) but for annointing the dead. The beautiful, hard and long-lasting wood of the olive tree was used in constructing altars and temples.
There are stories from almost every Mediterranean culture about which god (actually, it was usually a goddess) was responsible for the cultivation of olive trees, which provided so many useful items for the people living around the Mediterranean basin. Greece has Athena as the responsible deity; Egypt gives the credit to Isis. Romans thanked Hercules for bringing the olive tree from Africa but Minerva (the analog to Athena) for teaching them how to cultivate it. The richness of stories about the tree shows how important it was to the region. In the 6th century BC, Athens had laws protecting olive trees. Olives feature prominantly in the works of ancient writers such as Homer, Pliny, and Aristotle. Greeks used olives for all the previously mentioned uses; they also liked to rub it on the bodies of their athletes. In the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece, winners were crowned with a laurel wreath but they were awarded an olive branch as well. And back to the Bible, olives and olive oil are mentioned between 30-100 times, depending on whom you ask. (I didn't count, myself.)
Fossilized leaves of Olea have been found in northern Africa that are 37,000 years old, indicatimg that Olea is an old genus indeed. Whether O. europa was hybridized by early humans or evolved to suit their needs so perfectly is unknown. Maybe it really was Hercules. However they got started, there are now thousands of cultivars of olives, one to suit every taste and then some.
The olive tree is usually kept pruned for easier picking but can grow over 40 feet tall and quite wide, and live for over a thousand years. It is known to flourish in soil that resembles that of coastal areas. Olives are usually harvested by hand.
Olives start off green, some cultivars turning purple or black as they ripen and some remaining green. They are extremely high in oleuropein, an anti-oxidant that is actually toxic at the levels present in unprocessed olives. Since ancient times, olives have been processed one of several ways:
Maybe with lye: Lye (alkaline) was used in ancient days to make soap and tan leather. It also removes the bitter toxins from olives. Of course they undergo a lengthy rinsing process afterwards! Secondly, with salt: Either dry-packed in salt or soaked in brine, salt-curing leaches the liquid portion of the olive out along with the bitter anti-oxidants; storing them in olive oil plumps them back up again. Olives can also be cured with fresh water (sounds safer): these olives are soaked in water baths which are changed daily, until the bitterness has been washed out.
Lastly, green olives are preserved by fermentation. Somehow a natural lactic acid (like yogurt) converts the bitter oleuropein into a pungent flavor which many enjoy. These are often sold pitted and stuffed with a pimento, or with something else small and savory (an almond, blue cheese, capers, anchovy paste). The fermentation method produces firmer, dryer olives, which are usually sold in a brine solution. This is the typical martini olive with pimento (not my drink so please don't ask for more details).
On a drive from San Francisco north to southern Oregon one summer, my husband and I stopped at The Olive Pit in Corning, CA, where it turns out half of all olives in California are processed! I didn't know that then, and besides, we were hurrying through. But this store called The Olive Pit has stuffed olives of every description, green olives stuffed with blue cheese, ripe olives stuffed with feta cheese, Kalamata olives stuffed with pimentos, plus all those combinations in different permutations, with jalapeño peppers, with chili peppers, ad infimitum. They also sold marinated olives, tapenades, ah, if only my husband liked olives nearly as much as I did!
Spain actually has a glut of olive oil this year; too many olives producing too much olive oil for the market. Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey are the world leaders in olive production (with 2009 statistics), and the relative newcomers of California and Australia don't even place! However, it takes at least four years for an olive tree to start producing a crop. Tunisia had 2,300,000 hectares planted with olives and Spain had only 200,000 more: 2,500,000 hectares. Yet in the figures given, Spain produced 6,402,700 tons and Tunisia only 750,000 tons. What do those numbers look like four years later now that Tunisia's trees have had a chance to start really producing?
All those yummy little phytochemicals that make cranberries and blueberries so healthy are also present in olives, and lots of research is being done about exactly how olives and oleupeurine can be used to maximize our health. For more information, check out this link. Nutritional information--exactly how many calories, how much salt, etc., can be found at World's Healthiest Foods but don't let the numbers scare you; few people consume olives one cup at a time!
Most of us would benefit from including more olives in our diet. Try one, and if you don't like it, try another kind. Olives can be chopped up and kneaded, with nuts, into bread dough, buzzed with tarragon, garlic and thyme and spread on a cracker, or just eaten straight out of the can. (Store it in the juice but in a different container in the fridge.) My favorite are California ripe olives, which are the Mission variety; I'll eat Kalamata or Greek olives if they're leftover on your plate or in a Greek salad but I wouldn't eat a green olive unless I were feeling adventurous. Well, I haven't yet at least. Which is your favorite olive?
pictures: thumbnail image: dish of black olives, by Gabriel Stiritz. available under Creative Commons License; Köhler's Medicinal Plants of 1897 illustration, public domain; green olives with pimentos by ronnieb of morguefile; olives at farmer's market at Toulons, France, by David Monniaux, available under Creative Commons License.