Ever heard of the dove who returns to a sea-bound ark with an olive branch in its beak? Remember Jesus preaching on the Mount of — wait for it — Olives?
Olives are one of the most perfect foods on the planet, in my opinion. Spherical, shiny, salty. . . they are beautiful to behold and even better to eat. Olive oil gets most of the attention these days for its health benefits and delicious taste, but I’d like to draw attention back to the source of this nectar of the gods, the olive itself.
Like most of you, I grew up only running into flavorless black olives on my pizza (healthy meal? check!), or at the occasional dinner where I would engage our guests with the obligatory look-I-have-ten-olives-on-my-fingers routine. My parents were so proud. Can most kids down an entire bowl of olives in 7 minutes flat? I don’t think so. Alas, my 1980s family was also all about the margarine and the ranch dressing. I don’t know when the divine pairing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil took place, forever altering the culinary course of bread and salad, but I’m quite sure it was not in Idaho. But I digress.
Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, Asia, and northern Africa, though of course they are now grown in many temperate parts of the world, including California and New Mexico. The olive tree can thrive for hundreds of years, and between its gnarled trunk, gorgeous branches, and delectable fruit, it is easy to see why the Ancient Greeks and Romans considered olive oil sacred (who doesn’t? My husband would drink this stuff by the glass if it were socially acceptable) and presented olive wreaths to Olympic champions. (On that note, don’t you think victorious athletes of today would much prefer a glorious plant-based wreath to a bulky solid-gold medal and Wheaties contract? Of course they would.) Another fun historical/literary fact: the bed of Penelope and Odysseus (yes, that Odysseus) was apparently constructed around the trunk of an olive tree. I leave you to interpret. Let’s just say that the Greeks, who today use 60% of their agricultural land to grow olives and produce 20% of the global olive supply, take olives very seriously.
I know, I know, olives are high in fat. But remember, my little fat gram counter, there are good and bad fats, and olives happen to fall squarely in the good column, providing a healthy serving (usually about 1 gram per olive) of monounsaturated fat, along with antioxidants, calcium (olive milk, anyone?), fiber, potassium, and vitamin E. Because olives are too bitter to be eaten when raw, they must undergo some type of curing. Greeks process ripe olives, then cure them in one of three ways: dry-cured (rubbed with salt), sun-cured (left out in the sun, wrinkled), or oil-cured (soaked in oil for several months). Kalamata olives (uh, yum) are cured in red wine vinegar or wine; the ripeness and fermentation give them their depth of flavor. Canned black olives, which we are most familiar with in America, are picked unripe and soaked in an alkaline lye mix for several hours, oxidized with air, then rinsed. Iron is added to keep the characteristic dark color and firm texture, and chemicals are used to help the olives stay strong for the de-pitting process. Lye leeches out the flavor, but these short-cuts make for much quicker production. Convinced yet to give whole, wrinkly olives with pits a try? (I am loathe to abandon my favorite, garlic-stuffed jumbo green olives, but I will at least branch out.)
I love to add olives to pasta or grain-based salads, slice them onto flat-breads or hummus, make them into pates for appetizers, or simply eat them as a satisfying snack. Olives, olive you!