What’s in an olive?

Have you ever thought of an answer to that question: What is in an olive? Yes, the pit is there, but so are a lot of nutritious things, minerals, oils and vitamins. Can you imagine where they come from? A few nights ago, while we were walking, I asked my 6-year-old grandson, Sam, if he knew where olives came from. Of course, he had the answer: They came from Wegmans.

Let’s look at olives. Before Wegmans got them for us, the olive has had a long and varied history. As a matter of fact, there is no history as to when this plant was first cultivated. But we do know that it is one of the first plants to be cultivated in organized farms. Lost in unwritten history are answers to the questions like: Who first pressed olives to extract the oils? Who first found a way to take the bitterness from the fruit and treat them with salt or soda to make them edible? One day in southern California, as I was wandering about the grounds at my hotel, I picked a ripe olive and popped it into my mouth. Talk about bitter! It took a couple of days to get the taste out of my mouth.

Because of the ideal climate and soils all around the Mediterranean, world production is pretty much centered there. Of course, a lot of olives are grown in California and in South Africa, and even in Australia. But the area around that sea, starting in Spain, through France and Italy and Greece and Turkey and then coming back through northern Africa, particularly Tunisia, is where all the action is centered, especially when it comes to the olive oil industry. While the most delicate oils seem to come from Spain and France, some of the largest production comes from Italy, but not necessarily from Italian olives. The need is so great that those famous brands import a lot of olives, particularly from Turkey and Tunisia.

For thousands of years, ripe olives have been gathered at a stage when the farmer thought that they would yield the most oil. They were taken to a building that had giant millstones over a deep cistern. As the millstones rotated over the olives, they were crushed, flesh and pits together, into a paste. I am sure that many of us have seen that vignette in the biblical movies of the ’50s and ’60s of oxen walking in a circle, turning the stones. They were the power to get the job done. The paste was loaded onto huge, fibrous mats. They were piled high and put under pressure so that the oil, with the addition of hot water, would drip to a vat below. After settling, it was an easy task to decant the water, leaving the oil. So, in just one paragraph, you have an overview of the very complicated process that was able to extract about 40 percent of the oil from the fruit.

Come the 20th century, technology changed the whole process. Today, modern hydraulic presses are able to extract more than 90 percent of the oils with a whole lot less labor, more quickly and without the oxen to do the work. Yes, they are still able, in many instances, to grade the oil into extra virgin, virgin and olive oil. And yes, there are still some smaller “estate oil” producers. Their products tend to be more expensive and, to the trained palate, worth the price.

I remember going, a few years ago, to the National Fancy Foods Show, held annually at New York’s Javits Center. One section of several hundred square feet was devoted to booths for various olive oil producers. Each vendor had warm, freshly baked-in-the-booth bread and little bowls of their oil out for tasting.

I remember, too, when I was a youth, that as we left church, the mad dash to the Caito Bakery on Washington Street to get a loaf of hot bread just out of the oven, so we could get home quickly and dip that bread into warmed olive oil.


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