By ZUBIN D’SOUZA
Yup, I guess you know all about olives! What’s there to read about olives? They are good for health, they come in black or green and are sometimes stuffed with pimentos which make them look and taste awesome! And not to miss the fact that they add a punch to a martini and probably make them taste better as well. Of course, we mustn’t miss out on the facts that the vegetable can be pressed into a real mean olive oil that has amazing flavour and has a positive effect on the cholesterol issues as well that seem to be plaguing us.
Okay first things first, the olive is a drupe. Now a drupe is a fleshy fruit that contains a single large stone like a peach. The olive tree is one of the oldest cultivated plants. They were originally the size of bushes and the first discoverers were the Assyrian civilization but with proper care and looking after, they grew into the comparatively massive giants that you see today. Olive trees also live to a staggering old age of five hundred years. The oldest recorded olive tree is an earth shattering three thousand years old and lives on in Greece and is rumoured to be the tree that even gave shade to Plato while he gave his discourses. No wonder the legend of olives promoting an ever increasing life span never seems to dissipate.
The olive tree does not grow out of a seed. When the seed is planted, it gives rise to thorny bushes that are known as wild olives and are not really fit for human consumption. Part of the stem has to be cut off and either replanted or grafted on to another tree. Even when a tree ‘dies’ and the dead wood is cleared around it, it gives rise to new shoots which in a way ensure that the tree continues to live on. The significance of this was not lost on the ancient civilizations that were quick to term the tree as royal tree, attach massive doses of myth to it and create a series of rules and regulations regarding their use.
Olives and olive oil are held sacred for most of the religions arising from the part of the world where they originally grow. Although the tree originated in North Africa, it soon travelled to many parts of the world along with conquerors. In North Africa, Egypt, olive branches adorned the tomb of Emperor Tutankhamen the boy prince; in Greek mythology, the tree was sacred to the goddess Athena. In Christianity there are mentions of the Mount of Olives and a dove returned to Noah holding an olive branch which allowed him to believe that the waters were receding and all was well with the world; olive oil used for anointing and burning of the holy lamps is something that resonates often in the Bible and also finds mention in Jewish scriptures. The Greeks used to smear olive oil on their bodies as part of their grooming rituals and for good health. Truly, even today, the Greeks are the largest consumers of the olive oil with a thunderous twenty-five liters consumed per person per annum.
Olives are definitely beneficial to us. When consumed, they carry with them a wide range of phenolic compounds that have a positive effect on our bodies and along with that, we get massive doses of Vitamin E that leave us looking really good.
Apart from that, they lower the bad cholesterol levels and raise the good cholesterol levels in our bodies.
Now if you ate olives fresh from the tree, I am sure that you would prefer staying with bad health because it possesses a characteristic bitterness caused by a phenolic compound called oleuropein that is only eliminated by the curing and fermentation processes. The curing and fermentation process (which involves the use of lye) can be spread over several days and also helps to preserve the highly delicate fruit. The problem is that the process also reduces some of the health benefits. Having said that, even the cured olives have the power to make several of your health issues go away and they also work as a powerful aphrodisiac.
I guess that I have to tell the bartender to go slow on the gin and top up the olives in my martini!