on July 3, 2005
_Olives_ by Mort Rosenblum is a well-written, witty, and engaging book on all things olive, thorough in its coverage. Rosenblum became an olive aficionado after acquiring five acres of land in the Provence region of France, site of an abandoned farmhouse and two hundred half-dead and heavily overgrown century-plus olive trees, long neglected. From that point on he became not only committed to bringing his trees back to life but on becoming an expert on olives in general, traveling throughout France, Israel, Palestine, Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, California, and Mexico to speak to olive growers, those who press olives for their oil, government regulators, those involved in marketing table olives and olive oil, chefs, and nutritional experts. Though not a cookbook, _Olives_ even includes cooking, buying, and storage tips as well as recipes for such fare as eliopitta (a Cypriot olive bread) and imam bayaldi (the name meaning "the imam fainted," supposedly reference to a long-ago reaction to this eggplant and olive oil dish).
The origins of the domestication of _Olea europaea_ are lost in the mists of prehistory. The olive, a close relation to the lilac and jasmine, was maintained in groves in Asia Minor as early as 6000 B.C. Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans spread olives to Sicily, the Italian mainland, France, Spain, and North Africa. Spanish missionaries in the 1500s brought the olive to California and Mexico. Today there are 800 million olive trees in the world. Though found on six continents, 90% of them are found in the Mediterranean (Spain has the most).
Olives have long been an important fixture in Mediterranean history and religion. Golden carvings of olives decorated ancient Egyptian tombs. Greeks used so much olive oil to lubricate their athletes that they invented a curved blade, the strigil, to scrape it off. Saul, the first king of Israel, was crowned by rubbing oil into his forehead. In Hebrew, the root word for "messiah" comes from "unguent," meaning that the messiah when he arrives will be slathered in oil. The fuel referred to in the miracle of Hanukkah was olive oil. The Old and New Testaments refer to olive oil 140 times and the olive tree 100 times. The Romans had a separate stock market and merchant marine dedicated just to oil.
Rosenblum vividly showed that olive oil is a nuanced as wine. There are seven hundred cultivated varieties, or cultivars, with some grown for pressing, others for eating, ranging from cailletiers (favored in salade nicoise) to malissi (the standard tree of the West Bank) to the hardy, wilder Moroccan picholine to the famous Greek Kalamata. Oils vary a lot in taste, from syrupy yellow oils of southern Italy to thin green Tuscan oils with a peppery after bite to the spicy and light oil of the Siurana region of Spain. Acidity and taste vary due to local cultivators, the weather that year, the presence or absence of pests, when the olives are harvested, and how long they sit around before pressing (as fermentation drives up acidity).
There are regional differences in harvesting olives. In Israel, Palestine, and France, they "milk" trees, the pickers using their fingers and dropping olives into a basket or a net under the tree. "Whackers" - prevalent in Spain, Italy, and Greece - use sticks to hit the branches to dislodge olives, faster and not requiring ladders, but tougher on the trees.
The actual process of pressing olives is extremely well-covered, Rosenblum vividly describing the one favored in most olive-growing countries, the modern continuous system (which uses linked centrifuges to grind up pulp), often highly automated, and the traditional method of using a tower press, which is a very interesting device (though labor-intensive and on the decline outside of niche markets). There are considerable debates in the industry over exact methods, particularly on the use of water and its temperature.
Olives are big business; an industry producing about $10 billion a year as the world consumes nearly 2 million metric tons of olive oil each year. In some areas consumption is quite high; the average per capita consumption annually in Greece is five gallons of oil. Though Spain produces 37% of the world's oil compared to Italy's 19 % and Greece's 17%, it only has a 16% share of the American market (compared to Italy's 70% and Greece's 3%). Ten brands dominate the American domesticate market; most labels are small, sold only regionally or instead growers sell their olives to Italy to produced blended oils for export as a "Product of Italy" despite being grown perhaps in Tunisia, Greece, or Turkey. Rosenblum investigated the corruption that existed in the industry, from waning Mafia influence in Italy to adulterating olive oil with seed oil to cheating in some areas to gain EU agricultural subsidies.
Sales in olive oil have grown a great deal, particularly in the United States, thanks to a growing consensus on its healthfulness. Monounsaturated, olive oil drives out bad cholesterol without reducing the good. Rich in antioxidants, it has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
The author provided some valuable education to the consumer about oils. Extra-virgin for instance means that the amount of free fatty acids - mostly oleic acid - is below 1 percent, with the organoleptic properties (aroma, taste, and body) rating high. Virgin oil, rarely found for sale, has up to 2 percent acidity. Both are produced by "first-press" or "cold-press" methods. Plain olive oil, (or "pure"), is refined inferior oil used mainly for frying, treated with steam and chemicals and mixed with some better oil for a little flavor and aroma. Pomace oil comes from the first-press leavings, refined to bring it below the 3.5 percent acidity level that designates lamp oil, though often pomace is instead used to make soap (the oil for soap may have 40% acidity). "Lite" oil has the same number of calories (125 per tablespoon), simply being a refined olive oil with less extra virgin added, a clearer color, cheaper to make, and inferior.