There are two food items that pretty well define the Mediterranean: the grape and the olive. Roman naturalist and historian Pliny the Elder wrote that “Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.” The olive was the favorite food of the Greek philosopher Plato, and the Roman poet Horace, who identified the olive as a key part of his diet, wrote about Olives in his Odes.
In fact, a great deal of ancient literature contains references to the olive, from the olive branch carried to Noah by the dove in the Bible to Aeneas carrying an olive branch in Virgil’s Aeneid. (Today, the literature that most often carries references to the olive is medical literature, as more and more people come to appreciate the health benefits of olives and olive oil. So it appears that we are finally catching up with the ancients in our appreciation of this venerable fruit.)
In ancient times, olives were often the most important dish at a meal, or at least an important ingredient of several dishes. This importance spread throughout the Mediterranean, and while olives are often present primarily as olive oil in some Mediterranean cuisines, dishes of olives are still as common as salt on tables throughout much of the region.
There are a variety of possible starting points for the olive. It has been cultivated in the eastern end of the Mediterranean since Neolithic times. Egyptian art depicts olive picking, but it is not clear whether the olives were wild or domesticated. Syria and Palestine may have been the first to cultivate the olive, but it appears to have been cultivated in Crete, too, around the same time—about 3500 B.C. By 2500 B.C., olives and olive oil were a major component of international commerce, with olive oil being shipped from Crete to Egypt and Asia Minor (modern Turkey).
It is said that the Greeks named Athens for Athena in thanks for her gift of the olive tree. Since it was Cecrops, the founder of Athens, who introduced the olive to Athens from Argos, there is at least a little history behind the myth. Olives were growing in Greece by 1700 B.C., and became the country’s most successful crop—responsible for most Athenian economic and trade policies.
Olives continued to move around the Mediterranean, though not always logically. They moved across North Africa to Carthage, from which they were introduced to Spain in the fourth century B.C., then they headed east again, through the south of France, and then into Italy.
Oddly, though vital to the Mediterranean, olives and olive oil didn’t move north for centuries. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, lard was the primary cooking fat in Europe. Olive oil was unknown in Paris until the French Revolution, when it was introduced by a Provençal restaurant opened there. However, in Moorish-ruled Spain and most of North Africa, where lard (which comes from pigs) would have been totally unacceptable, olive oil reigned supreme, and olives were a favorite food.
In Spain, olives are still a key part of any tapas menu. Olive oil is the foundation of cooking from southern France to the Middle East. In North Africa, olives are both among the top agricultural products and the dominant feature in many market booths. It is hard to overstate the importance of olives in the Mediterranean, and may be hard to even imagine outside the region. Europe produces more than three-quarters of the world’s cultivated olives, with nearly 500 million olive trees. At the beginning of the 21st century, Spain and Italy were the world leaders in olive production, followed by Greece. Other major players include Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, and Portugal. This is truly a major crop for the region.
The photo at the top of the post is from a market in Meknes, Morocco. Picking olives is timed to produce three distinct colors: green, brown (half way between green and ripe), and ripe or black olives. The number of stalls offering heaps and jars of olives underscores the importance of this ancient fruit in this region. They also delight the shoppers and diners who benefit from the bounty.
Copyright ©2010 Cynthia Clampitt