The ancient sacred olive, in modern times

An olive tree in the Cilento region.

This tree was planted before the nation of Italy was born, when the Italian south was a kingdom apart. It could well have been producing olives when Naples was at the height of glory, one of the leading cities on the continent, and a must-see stop on the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century.

The olive is mentioned in ancient literature, including thirty times in the Bible. Its oil fueled the original Olympic flame. Kings were anointed with olive oil, and it is still used in religious ceremonies.
Theophrastus, a student of both Plato and Aristotle, wrote about olive husbandry. “The olive tree grows, one may say, in more ways than any other plant; it grows from a piece of the trunk or of the stock, from the root, from a twig, and from a stake…” He warns that olives grown from seed produce a wild olive, of poor quality. He also quotes Androtion in saying that olives require heavy pruning for the best production, and also need “the most pungent manure and the heaviest watering.” He describes the damage they suffer from hot winds or freezing temperatures. Though he wrote this in Greece in the third century B.C., these classical methods were carried into the Magna Graecia and applied to olive culture there.
I find fascinating the common knowledge of the natural world in earlier times. A statement of Theophrastus illustrates this, in regards to the summer solstice. How do I know when the solstice is? I check a calender, reference book, or (more likely) find it online. But two thousand years ago, people checked their olive trees for that information: “There is a peculiarity special to the olive, lime, elm, and abele: their leaves appear to invert the upper surface after the summer solstice, and by this men know that the solstice is past.”
In Roman times, a garden was not considered complete without some olive trees, and olive oil served as liquid money. It is still highly prized, with Italy consuming about 30% of the world’s olive oil, most of which is grown in the Mediterranean region.
Next time you break open a rustic loaf of bread, pour a little olive oil in a dish, add some balsamic vinegar, and think about the ancient origins of your small feast as you enjoy it.

Culinary Tourism: Taste the olive oil.

In my part of the world, wine tasting is popular, and when I lived in Texas, I participated in a chili cook-off. And chocolate tasting? I’m nibbling some right now.

But in the south of Italy, you find tours dedicated to tasting olive oils. I never gave much thought to variations in olive oil until I visited Italy in 2004. Then, it seemed quite a curiosity to me, the interest people took in their oils. Now, I’m eager to explore olive oils myself, and where better but Puglia?

According to The Olive Oil Times, about 40% of Italy’s olive oil grows on roughly 60 million trees in Puglia. You can read descriptions of different types of oil, and a great deal of olive knowledge.

How do you taste it? At Olive Oil Source, you can learn from professional olive oil taster Nancy Ash, owner of Strictly Olive Oil. You can learn the lingo and see what the pros are looking for in their oils.

For the more visual learners among us, here’s a video of Bill Sanders (called the evangelist of olive oil and wine) showing us all how to taste olive oil:

If you can’t make it to Italy, how about olive oil tasting in California? Yes, it’s available there too, so go out there and try a little EVOO! That’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil–soon you will be a pro in the tasting room.