13 Ways of Looking at an Olive



Shaken, not stirred.

Nobody knows for sure why olives became the quintessential garnish for a martini.

Dr. Ammar Martini, a volunteer with the Syrian Red Crescent, offered an explanation from a Syrian hospital on the Turkish border in 2012: his grandfather left Syria for Paris, along with the French occupation forces, in 1946. There he opened a cafe, where he served an already popular gin-vermouth cocktail BUT with an olive added as a point of difference – this was a nod to Idlib, his home province in Syria, which is renowned for growing high quality olives. It was so popular that the Parisians eventually called the drink by his name.


If you’ve ever picked an olive and eaten it straight away – unless you did so on the Greek resort island of Thassos, where the throubes black olive can be enjoyed straight from the tree – you probably know that they need to be cured, fermented or processed before we can eat them without turning our noses up at the bitterness.


As an invasive weed and fire hazard.

Since being introduced from Europe in the 1800s, olives trees have grown wild in South Australian forests, where they form thick canopies that inhibit the growth and suffocate regeneration of native Australian trees.

Better yet, the feral olive trees greatly enhance the already extremely high risk of bushfire in South Australia’s dry climate, since they are rich in flammable oil.


One from Athena and one at the Forum

the olive tree lives a thousand years

longer than all the great states

Still olive skin makes heads turn

in the right way, on a bad day

or is it the other way


What we call an olive is the fruit of the olea europaea tree, whose close relatives are the plum and peach. Whether green, black, purple or brown, all olives are the same thing, it just depends on when you pick them – early means green, while purple and black mean late.

Using the so-called ‘California process’, though, you can speed things up: green olives are artificially ripened by being repeatedly blasted and washed with oxygenated water, mimicking the natural ripening by oxidation which olives undergo on the tree.

Don’t be fooled by canned black olives thought – they’re just green olives that have been artificially coloured.


In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the potential of using leftover organic waste and by-products from olive oil production for a range of different commercial uses.

For example, drug companies may become interested in extracting residual oleuropein from olive waste, since according to one 2017 Italian-Swedish medical study this bioactive biophenol secoiridoid could help prevent osteoporosis, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In the sustainable packaging industry, antioxidants leached from leftover olive stones, skin, pulp and leaves could become a key component in developing oxidation-resistant, biodegradable coatings to make compostable packaging more sturdy.


According to the UK Office for National Statistics, Olivia was the most popular baby girl name in the UK in 2017. Oliver – also, like Olivia, derived from the Latin word for olive tree (ŏlīva), which probably came from Etruscan (eleiva) and Greek (elaia) – was the most popular boy’s name.

Olivia has also been the most popular girl’s name in Canada and Australia within the past five years, while Oliver was in the top 5 boy names in Norway, Estonia, Finland, and Denmark.

Perhaps thanks to Drew Barrymore’s baby and Victoria Beckham’s dog, it’s also currently the most fashionable time to be called ‘Olive’ since the 1880s.


Olives are extremely high in fat, but it’s all good – about 75% of an olive’s fat content is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that helps reduce blood pressure, burn bad fat, stave off type-2 diabetes, and encourages the growth of brain myelin, a kind of insulation layer around brain nerve cells essential for healthy brain function.


Like sourdough bread, natural yoghurt, and pickled vegetables, traditional table olives are a fermented food with more goodness to them than just the taste. Natural microflora on the olive fruit skin kick off a fermentation process that breaks down bitter-tasting phenolic compounds, and also generate glycerol and esters to give olives their distinctive taste and aroma.

The yeasts and bacteria also produce lactic acid, which lowers the pH and staves off most pathogens, meaning you can keep fermented olives keep for months without being refrigerated. An increasing number of studies also suggest that fermented olives could have beneficial, gut-friendly probiotic qualities.


A dove brought an olive branch to Noah to indicate the flood was over, and it has long been a symbol of peace.

To furniture-makers, however, an olive branch, or olive wood, is highly prized for its strength and high combustion temperature.

To interior designers and woodworkers the colour and unique grain patterns are the main attractions.

To architects, durability may be the key feature, as laid out by ancient Roman engineer-architect Vitruvius: In his 1st-century B.C. De Architectura, he describes close-knit bundles of charred olive wood as “a material which neither decay, nor the weather, nor time can harm, but even though buried in the earth or set in the water it keeps sound and useful forever.” Certainly a handy material to reinforce walls, battlements and foundations in an eternal city.


There’s a reason we talk about Greece and Italy so much regarding olives — as well as being staples of both national diets and economies, fossils suggest that the olive tree originated about 30 million years ago in the Oligocene region which became modern Italy, although it was probably ancient Greeks who introduced cultivated olives to their Italian colonies after it spread to Macedonia and Crete from the Levant around 6,000 years ago — but Spain actually tops the list of global olive production today, producing more than twice the annual output of both Greece and Italy, who are second and third.


In 1975, an Athens bus crashed into and ripped out the stump of an olive tree that was said to be the last remnant of an olive grove on the grounds of Plato’s Academy 2,400 years ago. The uprooted trunk was preserved and displayed at the Agricultural University of Athens, from where it was apparently stolen to be used as firewood some years later.

If pruned properly, olive trees regularly survive for many centuries, even millennia.

Olive oil is still made from a tree on Brijuni, Croatia, which has been radiocarbon dated to about 1,600 years old. The UNESCO-protected Bidni olive trees in Malta have been carbon dated at over 2,000 years old. And the town of Bshaale, Lebanon, claims to have trees from a long time before that – 6,000 years for the oldest.


As an elixir of long life.

The sleepy Italian village of Acciaroli on the Amalfi Coast seems to be the last place on Earth people are ready to drift off for the eternal sleep.

Despite high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, people in Acciaroli (as well as having low rates of Alzheimer’s and heart disease) live an extremely long time on average – there are more than 300 people over the age of 100, out of a total population of only 2,000 – largely thanks to their diet (which is heavy in olive oil and fish), as well as the fact that many locals hike up and down hills daily to tend their olive trees and vegetable gardens, keeping them very fit.

This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.


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