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Olives have been cultivated since prehistoric times in Asia Minor. From there, they spread all over the world. Today they are commercially produced in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, China, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Angola, South Africa, Uruguay, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, and California. Hands down, though, until this day, the Mediterranean area produces the most. Of the some 800 million olive trees growing on earth at this moment. 93 percent are growing in the Mediterranean area.
From the beginning, apparently, the calming and healing properties of its oil have been recognized. Thus the olive branch has long been used as a symbol of peace. Pouring oil on troubled waters--not to mention the dove bringing back a branch of olive as the first vegetation seen by Noah after the Deluge. Jeremiah (11:16) described prosperous Israel as "a green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit."
In Greek mythology, Athena gave this luscious drupe to mankind as a gift--and, in gratitude, citizens of Attica were said to have named the city of Athens after her.
In the Mideast, the story is told of Adam suffering from pain and complaining to God. At that, Gabriel descended from heaven with an olive tree, presented it to Adam, and said, "plant it, then pick the fruit and press out its oil. It will cure your pain and all sickness." Indeed, early Mideast civilizations believed it would cure every illness except death. And to this day, many drink half a cup of olive oil before breakfast to keep all systems well lubricated.
One writer observes, "It is quite affecting to observe how much the olive tree is to the country people. Its fruit supplies them with food, medicine and light; its leaves, winter fodder for the goats and sheep; it is their shelter from the heat and its branches and roots supply them with firewood. The olive tree is the peasant's all in all."
The first olive tree was planted in California around 1769 by Franciscan missionaries. In fact, all the "mission olives" grown today in California probably derive from trees grown at the Franciscan mission in San Diego, probably from Mexican seeds. This particular species--and there are some 35 altogether--is especially good for its oil.
The trees themselves are exquisite--remember Van Gogh's branches, twisted in pain and pleasure, having dark and sunny moments. My first memory of them "in the bark" was watching beautiful Moroccan women, dressed in bright red and brilliant white djellabas, standing by the roads in the Rif mountains beating the trees with paddles so that the multicolored fruits showered around them like pointillist brush strokes. Consider that a ton--a TON--of olives produces about 50 gallons of oil.
These evergreen trees can attain a great age--some in the eastern Mediterranan are estimated to be over 2,000 years old. They grow to a height of 20-40 feet and begin to bear fruit sometime between 4 and 8 years old. They bear lanceolate leaves and bloom with little whitish flowers that are wonderfully fragrant. Tennyson talks about Catullus' "olive-silvery Sirmio" in Frater Ave atque Vale.
So why are olives different colors? I'd actually attained quite an age myself before I realized they weren't different "kinds" of olives at all--but just the same basic olive at different stages of ripeness and cured in different ways. As if we picked apples at different stages of greeness and finally of red (or otherwise) ripeness, boiled them up with sugar and radically different spices, then served them up as gourmet sauces and side dishes.
All fresh olives are bitter (from their oleuropein) and tough--whether they're unripe and green--any shade of getting-ripe and red/purpley--or ripe and black. So they have to be:
In Casablanca's olive souq in the Habbous, you can wander past literally hundreds of barrels of green, red, purple, and black olives--tasting whatever looks good, buying a kilo or demi-kilo of whatever you like. I confess I was a particular sucker for those fat, pointy yellow-green olives, cracked then larded with thyme and garlic. One day, idly working my way through a demi-kilo (maybe 35-40) of olives while cooking dinner, I wondered about caloric content. FIFTEEN CALORIES A PIECE!!! Do I care? No. But I'm glad it isn't so easy or so cheap to get these heavenly drupes in the United States.
The sky is the limit when you're making your own, but some traditional kinds have become well known commercially. Here are a few: