Olives have long had a place in our kitchens and at our tables. To the Greeks and Romans, the olive wasn't just a source of food, but the fuel that lit their lamps and bolstered their economies. To this day, to figuratively extend the olive branch means to offer peace to your enemy. Learn more about the hearty olive, which not only tastes great but is good for you too!
A Brief History
Before domestication, the olive (Olea europaea) grew in the near east as the bitter fruit of wild oleaster trees. Around 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, however, in modern day Syria or Palestine, the olive took root and became a mainstay in the cuisines of Mediterranean and Middle East. Through cultivation and human intervention, the olive transformed into what we know it as today.
According to Greek legend, the goddess Athena gifted mankind the first tree. The olive was prized by the ancients not only as a source of food, but for its oil. The Greeks also loaded their ships with olive oil-filled amphorae, spreading the olive along ancient trading routes. To the Roman poet Virgil, the olive was associated with the Pax, the goddess of peace. And it is in his Aeneid that the olive branch is used as a gesture of goodwill.
The Spanish brought the olive to the Americas in the 16th century, establishing a grove of trees that exist to this day in Peru. By the 17th century, the olive was thriving in Mexico and California, brought by Franciscan monks. Olive trees have even found their way to Japan and Australia.
- As a member of the Olea genus, the olive tree is related to lilac, forsythia and jasmine.
- The olive is a type of a fruit known as a drupe, which contains a pit or stone surrounded by the flesh of the fruit.
- One of the oldest known olive trees still alive and still bearing fruit is located on the Greek island of Crete. It is estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.
- El Olivar, located in Lima, Peru, is a city park of olive trees dating back to 1560, the earliest ever planted in the Americas. Their wide and gnarled trunks still bear the scars of Spanish soldiers, who attacked and mutilated the trees as an act of retaliation when Peru gained independence in 1821.
- If your olive oil is "extra virgin" it means that it is of the highest quality — low acidity and free from additives, adulteration and "sensory defects." While olive oil must pass quality control tests to be deemed extra virgin, 69 percent of brands tested failed to hold up to US and international standards in a recent joint study between the University of California, Davis and the Australian Olive Association.
The olive is the fruit of an evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 feet tall. The tree, with its characteristic silvery green leaves and gnarled bark, thrives in hot, sunny Mediterranean climates. Although it grows well in moist soil, olive trees are fairly hearty when it comes to drought resistance, flourishing in the rocky and often steep hills along the Adriatic. Trees can also hold up to cold snaps, but will die off in freezing temperatures. If you are thinking about planting an olive tree, know that it can take up to fifteen years for it to bear fruit.
Olive production is separated into two parts: table olives (olives grown for cooking and eating) and olive oil. While most of the olives grown in the world are turned into oil — about 90 percent — most of the table olives are consumed in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. Spain and Italy are top producers of olives in the world while in the US, California produces 99 percent of all olives.
It takes about seven pounds of olives to make a half liter bottle of olive oil. The ripe olives are ground into a paste that is then pressed. The resulting liquid is then separated by centrifuge into oil and a liquid called pomace. In ancient times, the process involved stone mills to crush the olives and grass mats to separate the liquid.
In the US, olives are in season in the autumn and harvest occurs from September into November. If your olive is green, chances are it’s too bitter to eat unless it's been treated with a solution of lye. Ripe olives are purple and black depending on variety.
Like all industrially produced crops, the olive industry contributes to agricultural runoff, soil depletion and overuse of fertilizers and water. In Spain, where olive production is big business, irrigation has put strain on groundwater in Andalusia, bringing agricultural practices into question. And Spain is a country where 85 percent of its water is used to grow crops. It takes 363 gallons of water to make a pound of olives while 1,902 gallons are in a half liter bottle of olive oil. Better water management and use of olive byproduct for fertilization are just a couple of the recommendations to bring sustainability to the industry.
As of now, olives have mostly escaped genetic modification. Researchers in Italy recently experimented with fungal and bacterial resistant crops, but laws banning GMO field research have halted further development. However it's not genetic modification that olives need to worry about. With fracking increasingly vying for water use, contamination of groundwater may be agriculture’s biggest threat.
Table olives are sold in shades of green, purple, black and even red. Some have had the pit removed before consumption as well. But it's the purple or black olive that has been picked when ripe. Green olives are unripe and must be treated with a solution of lye to get rid of the bitter-tasting compound oleuropein before consumption.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Olives may be high in fat, but it's healthy monounsaturated fat. Further, olives are an excellent source of Vitamin E, providing 25 percent of your daily recommended value in a 3.5 oz serving. In addition, there are a lot of health claims about the benefits of olives and olive oil. In fact a recent New England Journal of Medicine study revealed a significant correlation between a diet with almost four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a 30 percent reduction of heart attacks and strokes!
What to Do with It
It's hard to think about olives without thinking about olive oil, especially when 90 percent of harvest gets turned into oil. It can be used to cook with, drizzle on seasonal vegetables or add to salads. Table olives are a perfect snack or appetizer, pairing well with various cheeses and wines. Some olives come stuffed with lemon, almonds, cheese and garlic, or seasoned with herbs and chili. A classic olive condiment is tapenade, a puree of black olives, capers, anchovies, herbs, lemon, mustard and even cognac. And don't forget the olive when making a martini! If you don’t want to eat your olives, the oil has a long history as moisturizer and cosmetic ingredient. It'll even help around the home.
Olive oil has a bit of a shelf life and should be consumed within a year of production otherwise it will go rancid. When not using, store in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Canned and bottled olives can last years if sealed and kept cool.
Cooking with olives and need to remove the pit? Smash the flat side of a chef's knife et voilà!
Stretching your food dollars through preservation
Olives are one of the original preserved foods. Humans have been curing, brining, fermenting and salting olives for millennia. In modern times, olives are tinned and bottled, extending their shelf life for years. If you're one of the lucky few who have ready access to fresh olives, here's a how-to guide for curing your own.
Olives may not be the star of this summery, Mediterranean dish, but they play an important role, adding a dimension of flavor that would otherwise not be there. The recipe also makes use of generous amount of fresh oregano, a recent Real Food Right Now alum. For me the following dish also solves many problems. It’s a "throw everything into one dish and bake" sort of thing and it solves the "what do I do with all my summer tomatoes?" problem. See? Genius.
Fish with Tomatoes, Olives and Fresh Herbs
1/2 pound fresh fish filet such as cod, hake or haddock
3–4 medium sized tomatoes
6 kalamata olives, pitted
2 tbs fresh oregano, lightly chopped
1 tbs chopped rosemary
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
2 tbs butter
Extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon wedge
Salt and pepper to taste
If you have harissa, you can give the top of the fillet a little schmeer. It's a bit intense, but awesome.
1. Preheat oven at 425 F. Salt fish fillet and place in an 8x8 Pyrex baking dish. Give it a glug of olive oil to coat both sides.
2. Chop tomatoes into inch-sized pieces. Don't worry about seeding them. You need all that liquid to help create the sauce that the fish will cook in. Toss in mixing bowl with a generous sprinkling of salt, garlic cloves, olives, another big glug of olive oil and the fresh herbs.
3. Place tomato mixture in baking dish, surrounding the fish in the middle. The idea is to have a good layer of tomatoes — like a couple of inches deep. You may need to add another tomato as necessary. Also there should be a healthy amount of olive oil in this dish, enough to help the tomatoes cook down and create a sauce. I like to add dry vermouth to the mixture if it looks a little on the dry side.
4. Squeeze lemon over the fish and tomatoes and toss the wedge into the dish. Slice butter into four pats and place on top. Garnish fish with fresh herbs. Bake 20–30 minutes until the mixture has cooked down. Fish will be firm yet moist and flaky.
You may need to give the mixture a stir with a wooden spoon while it's baking to break down the tomatoes. In addition, if tomatoes look dry, add another splash of vermouth and olive oil