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The Olive Tree and its Fruit

The History
The olive is a subtropical, broad-leaved, perennial tree which produces edible fruit. Its ancestor, Oleastro, dates back millions of year. Archaeological records indicate olives have been eaten for over 35,000 years, and that man has cultivated the tree for at least 6,000 years. The olive tree ranges in height from 10 to 40 feet, or more, and can attain a great age — some in the eastern Mediterranean are estimated to be over 2,000 years old.

The olive came from Asia Minor and spread along the coasts of the Mediterranean, in the area between the 30th and 45th parallels. About 6,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent — what is today Syria and Palestine — olives first began to be cultivated. The practice quickly spread to Crete, flourishing in the island's dry climate. Cretans became wealthy by exporting the oil and making lotions and cosmetics from it. An entire shipping fleet was made for selling oil to the Egyptians and the Greeks, carrying large quantities of oil in amphorae (vase-like jars) known as pithoi.

The first recorded oil extraction mill was in Palestine in 1000 B.C. Over 100 olive presses have been found in Tel Mique Akron, where the Philistinese first produced oil. These 100 presses managed to produce between 1,000 and 3,000 tons of olive oil per year.

The Tree
The wood of the olive tree resists decay, and when the top of the tree is killed by bad weather or human mistakes, a new trunk will grow back from the roots. Despite harsh winters and burning summers, the olive continues to grow and produce fruit. The branches are able to carry a large amount of fruit on their numerous twigs, which are so flexible that they sway with the slightest breeze but remain very strong.

Olive leaves are thick and leathery. Each leaf grows over a 2-year period and flowers bloom in late spring. They are small and white, grouped in loose clusters in the axels of the leaves. There are two different kinds of flowers: perfect flowers, containing both male and female parts, which are capable of developing into the olive fruits; and staminate flowers, male only, which contain the pollen-producing parts.

The Fruit
The olive fruit is a drupe, botanically similar to an almond or a small nectarine. The skin is smooth and free of hairs, the flesh is the tissue that is eaten and the pit encloses the seed. Fruit shape and size vary greatly among the different varietals. For example, Kalamata olives, Greece’s most prestigious olives, are small, black and oval while Cerignola olives, main product of Apulia, are white, round and rather large. Some other common Italian cultivars are: Frantoio, native of Tuscany, Moraiolo, also from Tuscany, and Leccino, particularly known for its tolerance to adverse weather and cultivated in all the olive-growing regions of Italy.

Olives tend to have a maximum oil content and greatest weight 6 to 8 months after the blossoms appear. Fruits for oil extraction are allowed to mature on the tree, but to be eaten, they are picked when unripe and then treated. Olives have different colors not because they are of different types but because they are at different stages of ripeness or are cured in different ways.

All fresh olives are bitter and tough. They have to be separated according to color and size. Then they are soaked in a lye treatment (traditionally wood ash), then cured in either dry salt, or oil and finally packed in either oil or vinegar with herbs, spices, and other flavorings.

The best olives to make olive oil are those that are not yet fully ripe. In Tuscany, the select oil made from these unripe olives is called "l'olio del padrone" — the oil given to the olive tree orchard's owner.

The Oil
Olives are grown mainly for the production of olive oil. Italy and Spain are now the most prolific producers of olive oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is produced in almost every region of Italy, except Piedmont and Val d’ Aosta. The leading producers are Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria and Apulia. There are about 30 varieties of olives growing in Italy today, and each yields a particular oil with its own unique characteristics.

Today, oil is made in nearly every region of Italy. In the beginning, the Etruscans from Umbria, Tuscany, Northern Latium and parts of Emilia-Romagna were the main producers and exporters of oil in the Mediterranean. They were growing olive trees in the first century A.D., and when they were conquered by the Romans, the Romans became the greatest olive oil producer in the world, organizing farming and production throughout the Roman Empire, including what is now Spain, Southern France, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. The Empire also formed trade associations and laws covering the production and sale of olive oil. After the fall of the Empire, olive oil production suffered and large-scale production and trade ended. However, the means of production began once again to improve during the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance. Once the Crusades reopened trade between the Mediterranean and the East, the ports of Genova and Venice became vital and Italy once again became the olive-oil making powerhouse it is today. Despite updates in olive pressing and oil separating technology, the overall process is still basically identical to what it was thousands of years ago.


Copyright 2003 Italian Cooking and Living