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). Continue reading