Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Olives

When I was a child, my mum used to keep a very small bottle of olive oil in the kitchen cupboard for medicinal purposes. It stayed there on the shelf for years and I’m sure she would no more have thought of cooking with it as she would of smearing lard into my ear to cure earache. However, now that the Mediterranean diet has become popular, the bottle has come out of the closet and stands proudly on the worktop, next to the garlic flakes and the Herbs of Provence.

The olive tree was probably first cultivated about six thousand years ago in what is now known as Syria, Israel and The Lebanon. It was used in oil lamps and blended with flower essences to make scented balms and even served as currency. Biblical references reveal its sacred qualities – it was used to anoint priests - as well as its symbolic qualities of peace, life and honour. Later, the Greeks brought the ‘King of Trees’ to Marseille where it thrived in the stony soil and hot, dry climate and today, ninety percent of olive tree cultivation is concentrated around the Mediterranean basin.


In Provence, it is common to find trees that are several hundred years old and there exists in Italy a tree that is three and a half thousand years old - although the claim is probably the Italian equivalent of the Fisherman’s Tale. The olivier is robust and take time to grow: unscrupulous would-be olive farmers have been known to steal young trees from existing olive groves as they haven’t got the time to grow them from seed. Indeed, it used to be said that it takes three generations to reap the benefits of an olivier: the grandfather plants it, the son prunes it and the grandson harvests the fruit. It is true that for the first seven years, the olive tree basks in the sun and takes life easy. Between seven and thirty-five years is when it begins to grow and produce olives, the crop increasing with each year. From thirty-five years onwards – and up to one hundred and fifty – the olive tree produces a regular and abundant crop until exhausted, it subsides gracefully into a gnarled and fruitless old age.


The olive tree is cultivated mainly for its oil and the olives have to be picked at the right moment as the taste depends upon it. Although the olive is ready for l’olivaison (harvest) at the end of September, when it is a tender green colour, only those destined to be pickled and eaten (or dropped into dry martinis) are gathered. As autumn progresses, the olive turns from pale green to yellowish green and then to brownish pink when it is known as l’olive tournante or ‘turning olive’. The colour deepens to wine red, then to purple and at the beginning of December, when it is almost black, it is finally harvested. This is a delicate operation and it is still done by hand, where possible, by migrant workers. Armed with wicker baskets slung around their waist, they climb stepladders that are pointed at the top like an easel and which allow them to reach the tops of the trees without damaging the branches. This is an expensive and impractical method and in some regions a special pole called a gaule is used to shake the olives from the branches into a net beneath. Elsewhere, they use an olive comb to rake the fruit from the branches.

The fragile olives are taken to the mill where they are sorted, washed and crushed into a paste which is then pressed in a pressoir or in a more high-tech centrifuge. The extracted, filtered oil is known as ‘cold-pressed virgin’ and is used for cooking and seasoning and, of course, pouring into sore ears. Regular consumption helps to combat high blood pressure, indigestion, diabetes and a host of other ills we lardy butter-guzzling northerners have brought upon ourselves. In the past, it was used as an anti-wrinkle cream (the recipe for which has been found on ancient papyrus), as a cure for cholera and as a massage oil for insomniac elephants (according to Aristotle). But surely you already knew that…?


The famous Marseille soap was once made from seventy-two percent olive oil. Today, it is made from several oils and various colorants and preservatives and has become a fashionable additive to floor cleaner, washing powder and the like. You can even be fooled into buying soap-scented shampoo or shower gel… Sadly, genuine savon de Marseille can only be found today at craft fairs, sold by organic middle-aged hippies at extortionate prices, like most other genuine produce.

As for the olives themselves, they can be eaten at various stages of maturity. Green olives are unripe and inedible straight from the tree – they must first be soaked in water or a lye solution for several weeks, then washed and pickled in brine. Black olives are fully mature and need only be brined. Each region has its speciality: Nyons is famed for its black olives which benefit from an AOC, like wine, as do the olives cassées or ‘broken olives’ from Les Baux de Provence, which are flavoured with fennel.

In the meantime, my mum happily pours olive oil onto just about every dish she makes. In fact, she uses so much of the stuff these days that my dad swears it’s coming out of his ears…

16 comments:

Louise said...

There is (or there was 3 years ago) a shop in Aix that sells real Savon de Marseille. Don't ask me for the address as I don't know the town well enough - my sister-in-law lives in Aix and every time I go to see her we visit this shop. It's not far from the square where they hold the flea market...

The savon there is 72% huile d'olive, comes in great big square hunks cut by hand and personally I don't like it! Reminds me of the ex who was a savon de Marseille fan. They also sell huile d'olive which is stored in great vats and you take in your empty bottle to have it filled.

The shop has been there for ever and ever and is a 'real' shop, not a thing opened for tourists - however the man who runs it is now elderly and goodness knows if someone will continue the business when he retires.

Numpty McHoon said...

The climate of Los Angeles is very Mediterranean, and olive trees are very common, typically found in suburban backyards, along with orange, lemon, lime, loquat, and pomegranate trees. California is a large producer of olives.

In 2005 I sold my home. There was an old, beautifully aged olive tree in the front yard which produced olives (and leaves!) that my neighbors gratefully collected and then processed using lye and brine. Knowing that I am clumsy with chemicals I cautiously avoided doing this myself, merely content to enjoy the end product.

I personally enjoy cooking with olive oil (I don't think there is any other kind of oil in the house).

Do not get me started on garlic.

Tinsie said...

Awwww I love olive oil, olives, tapenades etc.
Two things came to mind while reading your post:
In Greek, there's a saying that goes: "You should plant grapevines for yourself and olive trees for your children" (because it takes so long for olive trees to grow).
In Ancient Greece, the olive tree was sacred, and in the Olympic Games, the winners were given olive wreaths instead of medals. This tradition was revived during the Athens Olympics but caused a stir for the wrong reasons ;-)

Tinsie said...

Ooops, the link didn't work: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3596236.stm

Gigi said...

I'll have to have a look for that shop, Louise, when I'm next in Aix...it might be L'Occitane which is hideously expensive...that's near the market. I've gone back to using soap in the shower these days - I'm fed up of smelling like fruit yoghourt or pina colada - I just want to smell of soap!

Numpters - I often forget that America has different climates - when I think 'America', New York comes to mind - it's all those American police series I used to watch on telly that does it. If I lived in the USA, I would want live in California...(I bet most people would :-)) By the way, I love your photo - it always makes me smile!

Tinsie - I read the article you posted the link to...everything seems to be going that way these days, doesn't it?...soon there'll be no tradition allowed anywhere because of The Regulations! Oh and I LOVE tapenade...

Louise said...

Noooo - it isn't l'Occitane! It's just one little shop in a back street - next time I mail my SinL I'll ask her for the address, and anyone who is in Aix must go there! It is le Provence as it used to be - real Marcel Pagnol stuff!

Gigi said...

Oh yes - please do Louise...I'd love to know where it is!

Sarah said...

I adore olive oil but don't really like eating olives.

I don't use it for cooking pancakes though. I use Isio4 for that.

Mountain Dweller said...

Great post! I would love to have an olive tree in the garden, but because it is so cold here, they grow apparently but never actually bear olives. Which I suppose defeats the object!

Beaman said...

You wrote an interesting piece. My friend owns an olive university in Italy and so anything to do with olives catches my eyes. He is an American ex-pat who is based in Germany but commutes to Italy every season to live in a castle. Quite romantic in many ways.

Here is his site: http://www.oliveuniversity.org/

You have a nice blog. :)

Gigi said...

Sarah - olive oil is quite strong-tasting so I wouldn't use it for pancakes either...and I could eat jars of olives at a time!

mountain dweller - and here's me thinking cold pressed olive oil was the best!

beaman - thanks for the link - I took a look and if ever I have the means, I would love to go on a course there...it looks beautiful, apart from anything else.

I'm off to have a look at your site now...

CJ said...

Interesting how our tastes have changed...in SA when I moved there from California (in the 70's) olive oil was only sold in the pharmacy in the little bottles you mentioned. Over the ensuing years it became more and more popular and now the Cape, apart from wine, produces some very good olive oil and olives. The Olive Farm trilogy by Carol Drinkwater explains so much of olive lore. Loved the post, it's like having a mini-holiday.

bluevicar said...

As I read several thoughts come to mind...

...how opposite I am from the olive tree...At just the age that the trees become productive, I seemed to have plateaued...

...how the olive tree on my terrasse won't be of any use other than aesthetic during my lifetime...

...how on earth did anyone figure out that green olives tasted good if they were first soaked in lye. I don't keep vats of that stuff around just in case I want to see if some seemingly inedible fruit would be enhanced by soaking it for a while...

...and I won't even go into the insomniac elephants...maybe I'll try it on my husband...

Meilleurs voeux!!

angela said...

Great post.
I love olive oil. At Christmas at the market we were offered a glass of mulled wine and a chunk of grilled pain de campagne rubbed with garlic and smeared with olive oil. It was unforgettable.
Angela

roadsofstone said...

Thanks for that one, too, Gigi.

Happy memories of riding the bus down to Sorrento harbour in southern Italy from our clifftop hotel one September whilst watching the olive growers laying out their nets in preparation for the harvest ahead.

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