Olive is one of the world's most versatile plants. I simply couldn't imagine living without olive oil and good quality eating olives.
Olives ripening on tree
Olives ready for milling
Pitted olives for eating
Mediterranean or Central Asia.
Cultivation of the olive tree is known to have been practised in the Eastern Mediterranean for at least five millennia. Whether the plant really stems from these regions or is a native to Central Asia is subject to debate.
The fruit (a drupe), which is pale green when unripe and purple to black when ripe. Most olive fruits are harvested for the extraction of olive oil, the remainder being marketed fresh or used in the production of pickled olives. The leaves of the olive tree are used medicinally for their hypotensive qualities but have no culinary use.
Oleaceae (olive family).
Raw unripe olives are very bitter, the bitter constituents being reduced by treatment with lye to make them palatable. Ripe olives, on the other hand, can be directly preserved in salt or brine. Olive oil has a variable flavour. The best oils have mild or strong flavour that generates the descriptors "floral", "fruity" or "fresh". Poor quality olives tend to have pungent, acidic, rancid or even nonexistent aroma.
Olive is a loan from Latin oliva "olive" or "olive tree", which itself was derived from the Greek elais "olive tree", elaia "olive" or "olive tree" and elaion "olive oil". These words are not of Indo-European in origin and it is generally accepted that they were transferred to Greek via a Eastern Mediterranean language, usually assumed to be Semitic. As the botanical origin of the olive tree is unknown, the name could have travelled from more distant regions. There is a connection to the Dravidian languages of South India in that sesame, an important local source of vegetable oil, bears names that are remarkably similar to the Greek elaia, e.g. Tamil ellu.
Most contemporary European languages have a word for "olive" that derives, directly or indirectly, from Latin oliva. Examples are German olive, Polish oliwka, Slovenian oljka, Latvian olīvas and Dutch olijf. In some languages, the name was modified, e.g. Lithuanian alyvos and Albanian ullir. In the languages of Iberia, the Latin was superseded by an Arabic loan, hence both Spanish aceituna and Portuguese azeitona come from Arabic az-zaytun "the olive", whereas Spanish oliva and Portuguese oliveira refer to the tree, not the fruit).
The Arabic word zaytun is cognate to Hebrew zayith "olive" and might derive from a Common Semitic root signifying "to be prominent". Due to the spread of Islam, the word was transferred to other languages, from the Mediterranean (Portuguese azeitona) to Africa (Swahili zeituni) and Asia (Georgian zetis, Kazakh zäytun, Kurdish zaitun, Farsi zeitun, Punjabi jaitun and Tamil saidun). Another, more distantly related word is Maltese żebbuġ, which is suspected to derive from a term for "olive" in the Berber language.
Due to the enormous importance of olives for both Greek and Roman cultures, their name entered nearly every European language via Latin oleum "oil" as generic word for liquid fats, e.g. English "oil", French huile, German öl, Italian olio, Dutch olie, Polish olej and Finnish öljy.
Some Slavonic names for olive (e.g. Bulgarian maslina) have an exactly opposite history. Maslina derives from maslo "oil" or "fat", which originally meant "butter" (from the Common Slavonic root maz- "spread"). Words related to Bulgarian maslina were loaned to non-Slavonic languages, e.g. Romanian măslin and Yiddish masline.
The Iberic names for "oil" (Spanish aceite, Portuguese azeite) derive from the local names of olive, aceituna and azeitona, respectively. In other parts of the world the generic names of cooking fats may also be derived from whatever oilseed dominates local cuisine, examples being coconut and sesame.
The Latin species name europaeus means "European", derived from the Greek eurōpaios "Europe".
Olive is one of the most important cultigens and played an exceptionally important role in the ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean sea. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans knew and valued olive oil, the olive tree is mentioned in the Homeric epics and olive branches were used to decorate the winners of the earliest Olympic Games. In the classic era of Greece the olive was closely associated with the goddess Pallas Athene, a daughter of Zeus. There are a great many references to olives in the both the Old and the New Testaments.
Olives are grown across the entire Mediterranean region and are a crucial part of the diet in all Mediterranean countries, with olive oil ubiquitously used as a cooking medium and with pickled olives popular both a spice and as a snack.
Pickled olives are either black or green, depending whether they have been harvested unripe or ripe. Green olives are plucked unripe and either repeatedly watered or treated with concentrated lye before pickling to reduce bitterness and texture. Black olives are plucked ripe and either treated with salt or subjected to lactic fermentation, resulting in an intense flavour. The brine olives are pickled in is often further enhanced by addition of thyme, oregano or garlic.
Pickled olives are a common decoration for cold dishes and tasty sauces and fit best to specialties from the Mediterranean. The flavour can be enhanced by preparing a paste of finely cut and squeezed olives with good olive oil. Adding anchovies, garlic and capers to such a paste from black olives and olive oil gives tapenade, a Southern French condiment and appetiser which tastes best with crispy baguettes.
The use of olives for warm dishes is more or less restricted to Mediterranean cuisines. Tomato sauces containing onion, garlic, capers and green or black olives are characteristic of Italy and may be made even tastier by adding fresh basil, oregano and rue. Sauces of this kind may be used to cook meat or poultry or they can be served together with noodles (pasta). Italian pizza is often prepared with olives (usually black), mostly in Southern Italy.
Far more important than pickled olives is olive oil, whose production consumes about 90% of olive acreage. The best quality, native olive oil extra (formerly known by the Italian term extra vergine), is variable in appearance and taste with some oils subtle and flowery and others intense and fruity.
There is a great variety of colour and flavour in olive oils. The multitude of oil qualities can be reduced to two factors, namely the quality of the underlying olives and the method of extraction. Best extra vergine olive oil is produced from several different varieties of olives, the fruits being picked all at the same time at different stages of ripeness. Climate, altitude and soil influence the flavour of the oil. The oil must be extracted as soon as possible after plucking and in the meantime the olives require dry storage and careful handling to avoid the formation of marks on the fruits.
After extra vergine, the next fraction of oil, obtained from the watery residue of the first centrifugation (often at slightly elevated temperature) is less aromatic. Any oil produced in this way may be marketed as native olive oil or even native olive oil extra if the free acid level permits.
Native olive oil extra should be used for cold foods only as the flavour deteriorates on heating, volatile constituents evaporating or reacting to make unpleasantly flavoured compounds. Native olive oil, which is poorer in aroma, is well suited for shallow-frying. Nevertheless, even native olive oil does not tolerate the high temperatures typical of deep-frying, for which other oils such as peanut or sunflower are a better choice. The temperatures at which olive oil can be used for frying do not allow for efficient browning of meats or vegetables. To improve the smoke point one can add butter or butter fat (ghee) and this can also be beneficial for the flavour.
Many of the dishes of Southern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa owe much of their character to extra vergine olive oil. It is used for salads, the Near Eastern chick pea paste hummus, cold appetisers (mezes) and the bulgar-based salads of the Eastern Mediterranean. Olive oil is also used for spicy dips like Egyptian dukka and the famous Provençal garlic mayonnaise aïoli. Italian pasta noodles are often boiled with a spoonful of olive oil to prevent them from sticking together and before serving, olive oil is spooned on to increase flavour.
By using olive oil instead of vegetable oil, everyday dishes like shallow-fried vegetables (courgettes, aubergines or capsicum) derive a typically Mediterranean character, even more so if they are served with yoghurt or tomato sauce. A famous example from Turkey is imam bayıldı "the İmam fainted", aubergine fried in olive oil and stuffed with a spicy tomato and garlic paste. Slow frying of vegetables in olive oil consumes much of the oil. Alternatively one can deep-fry (or grill) the vegetables instead, pat them dry and sprinkle some high-quality olive oil before serving.
The taste of olive oil harmonises excellently with the fragrance of Mediterranean herbs. In Mediterranean countries olive oil is often flavoured with branches of rosemary, lavender, tarragon or, especially in Cyprus, with fresh capers. Most fresh herbs can be preserved in olive oil because their aroma compounds dissolve better in oil than in an aqueous medium. The most famous recipe of this kind is pesto, a paste of ground basil leaves in olive oil. Similarly, the pungency of chillies has an affinity for a fatty medium and in Italy peperoncini chillies are used to convert olive oil to the fiery condiment olio santo. In some variants of the Yemeni condiment zhoug the heat of green chillies is transmitted by olive oil.