Last week in Puglia, I was struck by the miles and miles of olive groves. Olive trees are fascinating to look at in that the trunks are gnarled and twisted and sometimes almost entirely hollowed out so that its hard to believe that they can actually support the branches. Puglia is said to produce 40% of Italy’s olive oil and could likely produce a lot more given the number of trees one sees. I did not know this but there are over thirty different varieties of olives in Italy alone not to mention the other varieties prevalent in France, Spain and Greece. The trees are hardy and are tolerant of drought and different types of soil but needless to say, they love the sun and hate ‘wet feet’.
We saw trees of different ages as we drove around and when we stopped at an olive farm to buy some oil, they had a thousand-year old tree in the front laden with olives. The family-run farm has been in operation since 1917 and we were shown around by the daughter of the present owner who said that many of the trees on the property were forty years old or more. They had seven varieties of olive trees and the flavour of the oil varies, depending not only on the variety but also on when the olives are picked, the type of soil, and the weather. Just like wine! When we saw them, the olives were still green but they begin to change colour to shades of purple as they ripen.
The olives are hand-picked from mid-October to mid-December, cold-pressed and bottled on the farm. We tasted several types which vary considerably in price and texture depending on whether the oil is a blend or organic or when the olives are picked. We bought oil from the first-pressed olives to use in salads and a large tin of oil for cooking from olives picked in December. The taste between the two is quite different as was the taste of the different oils we tried including one made from olives which are pitted before pressing and has a very delicate flavour. The use of olive oil goes back to around the 5th BC. What I find amazing is that anyone would think to try and do something with an olive. They are bitter and completely inedible if eaten off the tree.
When I first met Fidz, I used to be appalled by how he poured olive oil over everything including pizza. Now I find myself doing the same thing as there is no doubt that it enhances the flavour of almost anything you eat that is not sweet. Thankfully, this is no longer a guilty pleasure as there was an article in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year claiming that consumption of olive oil (or mixed nuts) together with a Mediterranean diet considerably decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fidz and I have discussions about what exactly constitutes a Mediterranean diet but I will leave that for another time. Suffice to say that one of the main constituents is plenty of vegetables, with olive oil of course!