Quick guide to Italian ingredients: Olives



Legend has it that two gods once competed for the patronage of an Ancient greek city, and the people decided to choose based on what gifts the gods would offer them. The sea god, Poseidon, offered them the gift of water, essential for life. The goddess Athena offered them the gift of a single olive tree. The people chose this second gift, and to this day the city has born the name of Athens.

This story shows the value that Ancient Europeans placed on the olive tree and its fruit, one of the oldest of European crops. Its utility, and versatility, has proved such that not only does it remain a staple of all mediterranean diets, but the plant itself represents prosperity and its prerequisite: peace.

Today, the olive tree (olea europaea) is cultivated all over Europe and the near East. Over the millennia, it has developed many varieties which make it easily cultivated from the hot climes of southern Spain, to the extreme climates of the Italian Apennines. Spain and Italy remain the top two producers with Greece and Turkey producing not insignificant amounts.

The life cycle of the olive fits almost perfectly with our calendar year: January through February, the trees are at rest. Then about the third week in February, buds appear that lead to a brief flowering period of about one week, in May. Soon after the blossoms fall. the fruit appear reaching maturity in November or December when they are harvested.

In Tuscany, there are several cultivars which are considered autochthonous. Of these, frantoio, moralino, and leccino are the most widely grown. In the area where I live, a lot of people have enough trees to meet all their olive oil needs for the year. They will harvest the olives in late november and take them to the local frantoio, or communal olive press.

The labelling and description of olive oil is fixed by a directive of the European Union, and consists of eight grades, the top two (extra virgin olive oil, and virgin olive oil) are produced for human consumption. One of the lower grades, called in Italian olio di sansa di olivois also used in cooking.

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