Saturday, October 16, 2010


"The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palm, the gold beads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers -all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water."

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) 'Prospero's Cell' (1945)
It's almost that time of year, or I should say, every other year - for us anyway.  Soon we'll be laying out the nets, and getting in the supplies of bags and gathering up the odds and ends (sifting basket, rakes, gloves, ladders, as well as sticking plasters [band-aids] and Voltaren Gel) for olive picking.  T will have to mow the grass under the trees and we'll have to have at least a couple of dry days before we do all that. 

After our first olive harvest, which was surprisingly backbreaking, I remember we both looked at each other and said, "They don't charge enough for olive oil!!"  But then we did it again, because it was, after all, OUR olive oil.

We don't make a lot of oil.  We really only have four super productive trees and 11 trees that are young (we planted them a few years ago) or wild trees with small olives.  Still it's ample enough to last us for 2 years til the next harvest.  We have enough to give to friends and a little bit left over by the time the next harvest comes around.  I love the taste of our oil.  It's lush and green and tastes like Corfu.

The wild olive trees are good for oil, but the olives are so small they fall through the nets sometimes and they have to be hand sorted.

Each harvest has been better than the last one, and our oil from the year before last was incredible- when T brought it home we were a bit panicky as it was cloudy and bright green.  We thought we'd picked the olives too early... but then we tasted it and the oil was amazing.

It was our first year that we had the "cough", which is generally said, when you taste your oil and you swallow it and then you cough, it's going  to be a really good oil.

Our discovery meant that we decided to pick the olives earlier, when the olive press wasn't as busy, and also when the olives were still a little green (thereby getting less oil) BUT the oil we got was wonderful! 

Trial and error made us come to realize that we needed to plan ahead and get braced to pick the olives and get them into the olive press as soon as possible after they were picked.  Lying on top of each other in giant bags means they can get moldy, which makes for really awful oil.

Basically we have to check the weather forecast, make sure the neighborhood community olive press is up and running, and then pick the olives and bag them and get them to the press within 72 hours (ideally!).  Of course it's compounded by the fact that you have to have at least 450 Kilo's of olives or else they'll mix your olives together with somebody else's olives!  (NO-ooo!)


So, today's post is a bit of a gathering of odd facts and gentle fictions on olive oil...

The leafy branches of the olive tree - the olive leaf  as a symbol of abundance, glory and peace - were used to crown the victors of friendly games and bloody wars. As emblems of benediction and purification, they were also ritually offered to deities and powerful figures; some were even found in Tutankhamen's tomb. The olive was sacred to Athena and appeared on the Athenian coinage.

Olive oil has long been considered sacred. It was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples as well as being the "eternal flame" of the original Olympic Games. Victors in these games were crowned with its leaves. Today, it is still used in many religious ceremonies.

Over the years, the olive has been the symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, wealth, power and pureness. The olive tree and olives are mentioned over 30 times in the Bible, in both the New and Old Testaments. It is one of the first plants mentioned in the Bible, and one of the most significant. For example, it was an olive leaf that a dove brought back to Noah to demonstrate that the flood was over. The Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem is mentioned several times. The Allegory of the Olive Tree in chapter 5 of the Book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon, refers to the scattering and gathering of Israel. It compares the Israelites and gentiles to tame and wild olive trees. The olive tree itself, as well as olive oil and olives, play an important role in the Bible.

The olive tree and olive oil are mentioned seven times in the Quran, and the olive is praised as a precious fruit. In Chapter 24 Al-Nur: "Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The metaphor of His Light is that of a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, its oil all but giving off light even if no fire touches it. Light upon Light. Allah guides to His Light whoever He wills and Allah makes metaphors for mankind and Allah has knowledge of all things." (Quran, 24:35). Olive tree and olive oil health benefits have been propounded in Prophetic medicine. The Prophet Mohamed is reported to have said: "Take oil of olive and massage with it - it is a blessed tree" (Sunan al-Darimi, 69:103).

According to the 4th-century BC father of botany, Theophrastus, the olive trees ordinarily attained an age of about 200 years. He mentions that the very olive tree of Athena still grew on the Acropolis and it was still to be seen there in the second century AD.  When Pausanias  was shown it, ca 170 AD, he reported "Legend also says that when the Persians fired Athens the olive was burnt down, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits." 

Olive suckers sprout readily from the stump, and the great age of some existing olive trees shows that it was perfectly possible that the olive tree of the Acropolis dated to the Bronze Age.

Tradition points to the limestone hills of Attica as the seat of its first cultivation on the Hellenic peninsula. One Greek myth attributes the founding of Athens to an olive tree that sprung from barren rock at the bidding of Athena, during a competition with Poseidon as to who would be the protector of Athens. Herodotus also tells of the magic property of statues carved from olive wood. A sacred tree of the goddess long stood on the Acropolis, and, though destroyed in the Persian invasion, sprouted again from the root.

By the time of Solon the olive had spread so much that he found it necessary to enact laws to regulate the cultivation of the tree in Attica. From here it gradually spread to all the Athenian allies and tributary states. Phoenician vessels may have taken olive cuttings to the Ionian coast, where it abounded in the time of Thales; the olives of the Sporades, Rhodes and Crete perhaps had a similar origin. Samos, if we may judge from the epithet of Aeschylus, must have had the plant long before the Persian Wars.

The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean region and Western Asia, and spread to nearby countries from there. It is estimated the cultivation of olive trees began more than 7000 years ago. As far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete; they may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan civilization. The ancient Greeks used to smear olive oil on their bodies and hair as a matter of grooming and good health.

Olive cultivation is an important part of the Mediterranean economy. Oleoculture has been moving westward over the last three millennia, and today Spain is the world's largest producer of olives (36%) followed by Italy (25%) and Greece (18%), and world production had crossed 2,594,500 tonnes (2,859,900 short tons) in 2008.

The olive has also been planted in other regions such as Chile, Australia, and California; but the primary production is almost entirely around the Mediterranean.


Tomorrow, I'll be blogging about curing olives and what it takes...  [Salt, for instance, is good... also water- and of course Time...]


  1. It must be wonderful to taste your own olive oil, even with all the work involved. Better than buying it from Sainsbury's

  2. You are so lucky to have your own olive oil. I'm fortunate to be able to get mine from my next door neighbour...oh so delicious! We have a couple of olive trees, not enough for oil. Mother-in-law picked most of them when they were here a couple of weeks ago and took them back to Ankara to prepare.

    We have a few more a the tops of the trees for picking soon, and my neighbour is going to prepare them for me. I'll watch this time and learn how to do it!

  3. such great information about this amazing product -- did you teach yourself all of this?? must be so worth all the hard work.....

    terrific post, thanks!



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