Olives are an ancient delicacy like no other. Whether eaten alone whole, or sliced and scattered on a pizza, the tiny fruit is a cornerstone in many food cultures around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Mediterranean.
It is widely accepted that the olive was first cultivated in the Levant region of the Middle East – which today encompasses Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. But the olive is perhaps best known as a classic Italian pizza topping.
We are always fascinated by this crossover of Italian and Lebanese food cultures, so we thought we’d take a closer that at the noble olive in history, mythology and on the modern table.
The History of Olives Around The World – “The Greatest Gift To Mankind”
The Olea Europaea – ‘European Olive’ – is one of the oldest known trees to have been cultivated by humans, with traces of domestication dating some 7,000 years ago in the Mediterranean regions of Crete and Levant.
Evidence suggests that olives were grown commercially in Crete as far back as 3000 BC, and many believe they may have been a source of the wealth of the Minoan civilisation who thrived in the Aegean islands from about 2600 to 1100 BC.
The Egyptians were also fond of olives, and evidence of the fruit has been found in ancient tombs dating back to 2000 B.C. But it was the Greeks who are often credited with perfecting the cultivation of the Olea Europaea, and processes for extracting the oil.
To the Greeks, the olive tree was the “greatest gift to mankind”. The expansion of the Roman Empire saw olives spread throughout Europe soon after. In Italy today the olive tree has reached divine status – a symbol of peace and humility.
Of course, olives are laced throughout Lebanese food history too. Lebanon’s temperate summers and mild winters proved to be the perfect conditions for olive trees to flourish and they soon became a distinctive part of the landscape. Today, some of the oldest olive trees in the world can be found in the northern Lebanese villages of Bshaale and Amioun – some are more than 1,500 years old!
Olives are not native to the Americas, rather they were brought there by Spanish colonists in the 16th century. Cultivation thrived in what is modern day Peru and Chile, and along the valleys of South America’s dry Pacific coast where the climate is quite similar to the Mediterranean. From here the olive made its way to Southern California, brought there by Spanish missionaries in the late 18th century.
In Australia, olive farming dates back to the early 19th century. Many believe that the first groves to be planted were in Parramatta in 1805. By the mid 1800, every state in Australia was farming olives.
Today, a vast majority of the world’s olive trees still reside in the Mediterranean with Spain, Italy and Greece being the biggest producers by a long shot, though North and South America, and Australia all contribute their fair share to the global yield.
In 2005, it was estimated that some 865 million olive trees existed in the world.
Olives In Art, Literature, Symbolism & Mythology
Olives are laced throughout art, literature, mythology and symbolism and have been since ancient times.
• Athens itself is named for the Goddess Athena who brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift, which was deemed more precious and powerful than Poseidon’s horse.
• The Greeks would also award the winners at the Olympic Games olive leaf crowns and olive oil.
• The olive branch has come to symbolise peace, longevity, fertility, maturity, wealth and prosperity.
• Impressionists such as Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne and Van Gogh were especially enamoured of the olive tree. It features in many great works of art, such as Van Gough’s ‘Olive Tree’ series and Matisse’s ‘Promenade among the Olive Trees’
• References to olives can be found in works by Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and Bates.
• References to the tree and its fruit are also peppered throughout the Bible, where it pops up some 42 times.
• Some of the most renowned poets of the twentieth century have devoted precious verses to olives, including Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández and Pablo Neruda.
Olive in Lebanese Cuisine
Olives or olive oil is a central element in many Lebanese dishes.
Man’oushe – Combine zesty za’atar with a drizzled of olive oil and put it in a blistering oven and you’ve got yourself traditional manoosh!
Hommus – The four key ingredients in hommus are chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and tahini, but it’s olive oil that brings everything together.
Labneh – Olive oil is an excellent preservative and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy labneh like we do without being able to store it in a jar of it.
Tahini – Tahini is made from grinding the seeds together with olive oil to make a paste.
Falafel – You would not be able eat golden, crispy falafels without a generous amount of olive oil for deep frying.
Mezze – When enjoying mezze in Lebanon it is common to be treated to a selection of fresh olives that have been grown by your host, or at least by a friend, neighbour or cousin.
Pizza – Who could forget olives on pizza! From the classic Italian pizza capricciosa to our Manoosh Special, olives provide a tangy, salty kick to just about any variation.
No matter how you like to eat olives there’s no denying the ancient fruit is unlike any other food. If you’re in the mood for a pizza topped with delicious, juicy olives stop by Manoosh or order online. You won’t be disappointed.