Here’s the thing about olives: People either really love them or really hate them. There is no in between.
Those that hate them will scramble from the table and rush to the bathroom to scrape their tongues should even a particle of olive accidentally pass their lips. Those that love them will eat them by the handful, go on and on about their deliciousness, and make “olive olives” jokes while trying to convince the haters that they just haven’t given olives a fair shake.
And those sweet dinner guests who say they can take it or leave it when served something in which an olive is floating? They are actual olive haters who are being polite, extending an olive branch to the chef who served them something that will later require them to rush to the bathroom and scrape their tongues.
This great divide between the olive haters and olive lovers has been going on for literally thousands of years. In 3000 B.C., some Greeks were probably scraping their tongues and shaking their heads at those who found that these Greece’s pieces could be distributed for financial gain.
Twenty percent of an olive, which is technically classified as “drupe fruit” because it has a single stone and grows from an olive tree flower, is oil that can be harvested as olive oil. Oddly enough, those who think a whole olive is the pits typically do not have the same problem with olive oil, and the same was true 5,000 years ago.
Primarily, the olive oil was popular among the ancient Greeks and Romans for sundry purposes such as sunscreen, makeup (the first eye shadow is thought to have been made from a mixture of olive oil and charcoal), and fuel for the original Olympic “Eternal Flame.” At the end of the contests, wreaths of olive branches were placed atop the heads of the Olympic champions.
In the Bible, both olives and olive oil are symbols of peace, joy, and reconciliation. The famous branch brought to Noah as evidence of dry land came from an olive tree, giving rise to the still popular expression of extending an olive branch to end a conflict or forgive a chef who unwittingly serves an olive hater an olive.
Olive plants as a species aren’t just biblically old. Individual olive trees have an average life span of approximately 450 years, but some have productive lives for more than 2,000 years. In Crete, a fruit producing olive tree estimated to be over 4,000 years old ought to be the AARP logo as a shining example of elder effectiveness.
Grown from roots or branch cuttings rather than seeds, these prolific trees mature to an average height of 30 feet, can be equally as wide, and produce fruit that tastes horrible.
And no, these are not the words of an olive hater. Given fruit directly from the tree, even the most olive-loving olive lover would participate in their olive adversary’s tongue scraping ritual. Olives “in the wild” are excruciatingly bitter and become edible only after a proper curing process. An olive eaten without curing is not an experience to be envied.
And while olives do come in black or green varieties, there is no such thing as a green or black olive tree. The color of the fruit comes from the level of ripeness, and a single tree can produce green olives if harvested early or black olives if the fruit is permitted to stay on the branches (where olive haters believe they belong).
Today, more than 40 percent of the world’s olives are grown in Spain, approximately 10 percent in Italy, and 7 percent in Greece. The United States contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s olive yield, primarily because the trees are not native to North America and tend to prefer a more subtropical climate than most of the United States can provide.
Brought to America in 1769 by Franciscan monks, the first olive trees were planted at the San Diego Mission in California, and olive trees still thrive there today.
Olive trees can be grown in South Carolina, but our climate necessitates extra care to ensure the health of the tree. The South Carolina Department of Forestry asks, however, that you stick to domesticated olive trees and avoid the wild variety. Brought from Asia to South Carolina in the 1830s as a means to control erosion, wild olive trees are shorter, more shrub like, and produce smaller fruit than their tame cousins. And, like a disrespectable distant relative, these savage saplings have become uncontrollable and downright destructive. They rudely displace native plants, hog all the soil nutrients, and invite an unmanageable number of their like-minded wild tree friends to join them in their shenanigans.
They should not be invited to your garden party.
Perhaps, rather than planting a tree, an easier method for procuring your own olives is to pick them up at the grocery store. There are thousands of olive varieties — a loathsome concept to olive haters everywhere — but some are more popular than others.
Kalamata olives are near-black in color, are frequently found in Greek salads, and are great when used as the base for olive tapenade. They are also the most popular variety used in sandwiches, pasta, and as a pizza topping.
Castelvetrano olives may be challenging to pronounce, but these green olives are wonderful for martinis because they hold up nicely in the alcohol.
Gordal olives, which translates to “fat one” olives, are perfect for stuffing. Pimento might still be the favorite olive filler, but goat cheese, bleu cheese, and garlic stuffed olives are also delightful.
Sevillano olives, also a good choice for pitting and stuffing, are frequently sliced and cooked on top of pizza.
Arbequina olives are dark brown in color, have a very rich flavor, and are commonly used in the production of olive oil.
Olives are now being promoted as a health food and — good news for the olive haters — olive oil gives the same sort of health benefits. Do avoid, however, mouthing the words “olive juice” instead of “olive oil” while in the company of others unless you are prepared to make an emotional commitment.
The vitamins found in both olives and olive oil have been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, heart disease, and strokes. They also fight inflammation, and they contain a compound called oleocanthal, which has been shown to fight certain types of cancer cells.
Be aware however that, if you are hoping to get these health benefits from olive oil instead of olives, you need to purchase quality olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, extracted without heat or chemicals from pure, cold-pressed olives, is considered the gold standard of olive oils and has an extremely low acidity level. It also can have an extremely high price tag.
All of me wants all of you to be olively informed, so protect yourself from oily imposters by reading the label carefully, avoiding oils packaged in clear, flimsy bottles, and look for a batch date indicating when the oil was produced.
The one eternal truth on which both the olive lovers and the olive haters can agree is that nothing is more heartbreaking than lousy olive juice.