Cooking with this adored Mediterranean fruit
It’s difficult to describe the tastes and flavors of foods. Olives are an especially hard case. Nothing tastes remotely like them, so it’s impossible to compare them to any other food.
Novelist Lawrence Durrell did the best job of evoking them when he wrote, “The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold beads, the bearded heroes . . . all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.”
Cultivation of the olive is certainly ancient. The gnarly trees, their green-and-silver leaves trembling in any breeze, are native to the Mediterranean. In Israel, there’s evidence of olive oil production in 6000 BC, and on the Greek island of Naxos, archeologists have discovered remains of olive oil in a jug dating to 4,000 BC.
Indeed, the olive tree was so vital to the Greeks that they embedded it in their myth of Athena. When she struck the Acropolis with her spear, the first olive tree sprang forth. This magic underwhelmed the witnesses, who grumbled that the sea-god Poseidon would have given them a better gift. But after Athena taught them how to cultivate the tree and process its products for food, light and timber, they realized its many virtues and named their city Athens in her honor.
Greece remains a major grower, producing 11 percent of the world’s olives and consuming 23 liters of olive oil per person per year. (Americans consume about one liter.)