Although olives were grown in ancient Asia and Africa, the country of Spain likes to claim top honors in its discovering this fruit. 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 best foods. (There weren’t 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 that symbolizes peace. Hebrew cuisine appreciated the fruit in addition to the oil, which was considered sacred and had many uses, including oil lamps, personal grooming and religious ceremonies.
The island of Crete made a significant influence in the olive business several thousand years B.C. but has been dwarfed in modern times by bigger and more populated nations. Case in point, Spain takes top honors for introducing olive trees into the Americas, where they showed up around the time Columbus increased his sails and headed West. (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 into the rich soils of California before it was settled and achieved statehood. Still a significant industry in Spain, they boast the largest production with approximately 6 million tons per year. Italy and Greece place second and third with 2.5 to 3.5 million tons annually. There is no question that the Mediterranean countries lead the pack, as 90% of all olives are pressed for their precious oil, while the remaining 10% left whole. In California’s Central Valley 27,000 acres of olive trees have been farmed annual. In general, more olives are produced than grapes, globally.
No doubt about it, the U.S. uses a hefty share of the annual yield, not just 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. Years before, it was even a popular female name (and who can forget Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl).
The olive tree is unusually hardy, and several have been identified throughout Mediterranean countries as more than a thousand years old and still producing. They prefer sun and hot weather and do not get 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, indigenous to the region that bears its name. In South America, the nation of Argentina has proclaimed olive oil a”national food” and is striving to enter the world market. They might not be a significant player yet, but they have set their sights on this popular export.
After harvesting, olives require healing since they can’t be eaten directly from the tree. (Don’t even think about it.) A lengthy procedure is necessary, using lye, brine, water or salt, with a fermentation period to eliminate the strong sour taste. For oil production, the first press is Extra Virgin, the highest quality. The next press is simple olive oil. It is interesting to note that many cooking oils need chemicals or industrial refining, while olive oil is an exception. (No wonder it is great for us.)
Coming late to the party, Japan’s island of Shodoshima, (or affectionately called”Olive Island”), produces a high quality olive oil that started in 1908. Clearly not a player in the business, the Japanese folks 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 a variety of recipes. They add flavor, color and a bit of oomph to just about everything. But just as a cautionary note, if you do not purchase the pitted ones, then please give your guests and family a”heads up!” No one wants a nice meal spoiled with an emergency visit to the dentist.