In praise of the olive

by Lorin Michel Friday, July 29, 2011 6:50 PM

It begins life as a seed that grows into a tiny green fruit with another seed in the middle. They don’t come hollow or stuffed with pimento, nor are they pickled, sliced or diced, not at first. They’re olea europaea, olives, whose trees are native to the Mediterranean, first appearing more than 7000 years ago and becoming a tremendous source of wealth. Legend states that when the Persians set fire to Athens, the original olive tree was burnt down, but on the very day it burned, it grew again to twice its height. Perhaps because the tree had been a gift from the gods.

There is definitely mythology in these little green footballs. Olives are mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testament. They’re mentioned seven times in the Quran, praised as a precious fruit. In The Odyssey, Odysseus crawls beneath two shoots of olives growing from a single stock while in the Iliad, the olive tree is used as metaphor. It appears in the mountains by a spring, notable because olives rarely thrive too far away from the sea and definitely not up a mountain slope. This gave the Greeks power, and proved that the gods were watching out for them. The Roman poet Horace described his diet as filled with olives, endives and smooth mallows. Lord Monboddo, an 18th century Scottish judge and philosopher, commented that olives were one of the preferred foods of the gods because of their perfection. After the 16th century, the olive traveled to and began to grow in Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina, and in the 18th century, in California. I thank the Lord, as in Monboddo.

We’re big on olives in this house, especially on Friday nights, affectionately known as Fritini. We prefer the manzanilla variety, a Spanish green cured lightly with lye then packed in salt and lactic acid brine, stuffed with pimento. When run through with a martini pick, and soaked in vodka for the appropriate amount of time, they’re quite tasty.

Of course, there is also the French variety known as picholine, also salt-brine cured with a subtle lightly salty flavor and packed with citric acid. And I’m a personal fan of the kalamata, especially on a Greek salad. The niçoise is great on pizza. There are also the Italian Liguria, ponentine, gaeta, lugano, the sevillano from California, and about 12 other types growing on about 800 million trees throughout the world.

But let’s return for a moment to the lovely green manzanilla and a number of its friends marinating in an ice cold Grey Goose martini, its pimentos smiling up from the liquid, just begging to be nibbled, chewed and swallowed.

On this last Friday in July, I give thanks to the Greeks and especially the Goddess Athena who brought olives to the tiny people below. This gift, useful for light, heat, food, medicine and perfume was chosen by Zeus as the world’s most useful invention, an invention that has also come to symbolize peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, power and purity. Athena’s original olive tree was said to be planted on the rocky hill of what is today the high city, the Acropolis.

The original olive tree on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

In praise of Athena, and her incredibly inventive fruit, I raise a glass. Cheers!

Comments (1) -

7/30/2011 1:42:26 PM #

And a special thanks to our mixologist-extraordinaire, Kevin, who generously fills a small shot glass with lots of extra olives for a particular guest on Fritini. Cheers!

Bobbi Jankovich United States

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