The sun drenched Mediterranean entices lovers, sun seekers, and historians alike. This beautiful region with its idyllic coastlines and rich, exotic traditions offers the ideal escape.

Who doesn’t dream of touring the Amalfi coast or trekking through the hill country of France? So much tradition joined with so many journeys to explore. Truly, one of the best experiences has to be the culinary journey through the Mediterranean. And what would Mediterranean cooking being with out the olive and olive oil? Both represent the essence of the region’s cuisine, so many varieties of olives grace not only the tables, but also the rich culture and heritage of the area.

Olives: Mythology and History

Greek mythology tells a tale wherein as a gift, the goddess Athena brought an olive to the Ancient Greeks who then named a city after her. They favored her gift as the most useful of inventions, even above Poseidon’s powerful horse, as Athena’s gift was one of peace. On the rocky outcrop today known as Acropolis, she planted the original olive tree from which every olive tree in Greece is believed to have come. The Greeks valued the olive tree so much that only virgin boys were allowed to harvest the olives once ripe.

In the historical account of Noah’s Ark, a dove journeyed from the ark and returned with an olive branch symbolizing not only the promise of dry land, but also God’s promise to safely bring Noah and his family through the flood. The original Olympic games in Greece adorned those claiming victory with a wreath made with olive branches. Today, the olive branch still symbolizes peace. The flag of the United Nations has the emblem of a wreath made from olive branches circling the globe symbolizing the desire for peace around the world. Ancient coins from Athens depicted the face of Athena wearing an olive leaf wreath and holding an urn of olive oil.

The olive was native to Asia Minor then spread from Palestine, Syria and Iran to the rest of the Mediterranean basin more than 6,000 years ago. Due to the wonderfully hot temperatures, the region offers the perfect environment for olive groves to flourish. In the past several hundred years the olive has spread to North and South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Many might think of Italy or Greece for olives and olive oils, yet today, Spain is the top world-wide producer of quality olive oil and home to the largest number of olive trees on the planet. Their olive oil groves stretch from the eastern border of France in the Mediterranean all the way to Andalusia along the coast, with other groves scattered throughout the country.

Olive Trees: Cultivating a Long Life

From the olive harvest in Sicily to the Olive Cassée in The village of Mouriès, France the olive is a celebrated fruit. And, as it should be! Olive groves have sustained people for centuries providing profitable agriculture and a way of life. The olive tree is an evergreen that grows up to 50 feet high with branches that can span to 30 feet. Quite an impressive tree to behold, the grayish leaves and twisted branches appear graceful. Olive trees are among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world and can live up to 500 years, probably due in part to their hardiness and ability to sprout back even after severe pruning.

So Many Olives to Choose From!

Green or black? The color difference simply refers to how ripe the fruit of the tree is. All olives eventually turn a dark, almost black color when left to ripen on the tree. Green olives are those harvested after reaching their maximum size but before turning the darker color. This is the best time to harvest. Some of the more popular varieties are manzanilla, kalamata, nicoise, liguria, and picholine.

Whether enjoying Tapas with a tantalizing variety of olives, enjoying the nourishing & moisturizing properties of pure olive oil soap or realizing the health benefits of cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil, chances are every home, at least occasionally, enjoys the bounty of the olive harvest.

by Lee Anne Michayluk

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