A Brief History of Olives
Popular as hors d’oeuvres or plunked in a martini in modern society, olives are steeped in mythological lore and have been cultivated for longer than you might think.
In a contest with Poseidon, God of the Sea, to gain favor with the people of Athens, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, thrust her spear into the ground near the Acropolis and there planted an olive branch that quickly grew to be the very first olive tree. Since Poseidon’s gift to the people was a saltwater spring, it wasn’t even close. It would be a challenge to find a tree more steeped in culture and myth than the olive, or, as it was known to the ancient Greeks the “moria.”
Although fossil evidence indicates an origin for the olive dating to millions of years ago, possibly in the eastern Mediterranean region, it has coexisted with humans for many thousands of years with cultivation underway as long ago as 6,000 BCE. Although not native to other parts of the world, due to its hardiness, the olive has found a foothold in places as far flung as South America, California, and Japan. Italy and Spain are the world’s biggest olive producers today, with Greece coming in a respectable third. Olive trees adapt well to difficult conditions, and do not require much in the way of care, as is befitting a tree with such a generally squat and gnarled appearance. When it comes to longevity, olive trees rival the world’s oldest, with some stands in existence for at least 2,000 years.
All parts of the olive, Olea europaea (L.), are useful. Of course, there is the fruit, which is technically a drupe, commonly known as a stone fruit, which contains a single seed. Extremely bitter when raw due to a high concentration of the phenolic compound oleuropein, olives must be processed to render them edible, most commonly by pickling in brine.
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Olives are well known for their oil, for which most olives are grown. Olive oil was made in ancient times by first cleaning the fruit, followed by crushing and pitting, and then pressing or beating the pulp in bags. Rinsing and several rounds of settling and separation completed the process. Early Mediterranean engineers devised a number of machines to increase the force applied during pressing to increase efficiency. Various permanently constructed pressing, decanting, and storage structures are known from the archeological record indicating olives were big business from early on. The production of olive oil today follows essentially the same sequence that was used thousands of years ago but centrifugation is often used instead of a more traditional pressing method.
Olives hold a special place in history, and not only as a food. Some of the earliest uses of olives and olive oil were as an anointment in religious ceremonies, as a fuel, and, of course, for cooking. In addition to being edible as a food, olive leaves are used to make medicinal teas and the wood is much admired by woodworkers.
A byproduct of olive oil production is a nasty-smelling and environmentally unfriendly substance called amurca. Amurca is the watery residue left after the quality oil has been separated. In Roman times it found use as a kind of shellac, a lubricant, an animal feed, a dressing for wounds, fertilizer, sealant and, due to its high phenolic content, a moth repellent.
The olive has made, and continues to make, its mark in religion, medicine, myth, and legend. Is the olive growing west of the Parthenon today a descendant of the legendary tree struck into the ground by the Goddess Athena? One can imagine it to be true.
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Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher