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Olives From A to Z: 26 Interesting Things to Know

Olives From A to Z: 26 Interesting Things to Know

Did you know? They are the world's most widely cultivated fruit and one of a few with all four basic tastes. Find out 26 interesting olive facts and figures.

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Ascolane. Olive ascolane, in addition to being a P.D.O. ( Protected Designation of Origin) cultivar, are a hearty, typical Italian dish that originated in the city of Ascoli Piceno back around 1800. These olives are filled with meat and fried (here you can find the recipe); the dish was created by the cooks of local noble families so they could use up the large quantities of meat they had in their kitchens, due to the levies the peasants had to pay to their landlords.

Brine. Olives have a bitter taste because of their high polyphenol content. For consumption at the table, they first have to undergo a brine treatment, which varies according to taste and tradition. At home, olives can be placed in an earthenware crock, covered with water and left to sit for a month, the time it takes to get rid of the bitter taste, remembering to change the water every day. Then prepare the brine, seal the pot and allow to mature for four months before eating.

California ripening. Preparing olives for the table usually involves fermentation. The California method, or 'artificial ripening', consists of immersing them in caustic soda, washing them and then injecting them with compressed air. The process, repeated multiple times, oxidizes the fruit’s skin and flesh, turning it dark in an artificial process that mimics the natural one.

Digestive. All olives stimulate the appetite and promote good digestion. Black olives contain fewer carbohydrates and are more digestible than the green ones, but they have a slightly higher fat and calorie count.

Expectacion de Fuente de Ávila. This is the name of the woman who saved olives in South America, according to the now-legendary story. In the 18th century, when the King of Spain’s soldiers arrived in Argentina to eradicate all the plantations that were competing with Seville’s, the girl concealed a little seedling, which eventually revived production all over the continent. That seedling, now a 400-year-old olive tree, can be found in the city of Aimogasta, the national olive capital, where the National Olive Growing Day is celebrated on 24 May. It is located in the department of Arauco, where the famous olive variety of the same name grows, in the northern province of La Rioja.

Four. Olives are one of the few foods that have all four basic flavours: sweet, salty, astringent and sour.

Green. Green table olives are harvested unripe, unlike the black ones which are taken ripe. There are also semi-ripe olives harvested at the start of the ripening process.

Handpicking. For the more prized varieties, and depending on the area of production, olives are harvested by hand and directly from the tree.

Imperia. From Italy’s Imperia province comes the Taggiasca olive, a P.O.D. from the Ligurian Riviera and one of the most highly prized of some 400 cultivars on the peninsula. Of average size, it is distinguished from others by an extremely low acidity level. 

Jet-black. Some olives are so black as to seem unreal. And in fact they are. These are fruits that have been artificially coloured using chemicals like ferrous sulphate (hydrogen sulphide salt).

Kalamata. A smooth, purplish olive with a slightly almond-like shape. One of the best-known Greek and European P.O.D. olives. The leaves on these trees are twice as big as the leaves of other varieties.

Leaf extract. The extraordinary properties of olive leaves for health and beauty have been known for millennia. Their most important phytochemical is called oleuropein; it helps combat a number of pathologies ranging from osteoporosis to cancer. It is used in cosmetics for its antioxidant, astringent and slightly antiseptic properties.

Martini. Obviously referring to the Martini cocktail, the before-dinner cocktail featuring Martini Dry (2/10) vermouth and gin (8/10), inevitably garnished with green olives.

N. 1. The olive is the world’s most widely cultivated fruit. Worldwide olive cultivation tripled between 1960 and 2004. The Mediterranean countries account for 95% of production; the leader is Spain (45%), followed by Italy, Greece, Turkey and Morocco.

Oleic acid. Olives as food contain a high level of complex energy-producing lipids. Their fatty-acid composition features a prevalence of mono-unsaturates, especially oleic acid, which have a positive effect on the metabolism of cholesterol.

Pickled. There are endless herbs, spices and recipes for dressing olives. Among the most famous marinated olives are Spain’s Aceitunas aliñadas, a recipe that includes bitter orange, salt, water, chili peppers, fennel, thyme and oregano, and sometimes a bit of vinegar.

Quran & Bible. The sacred texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all frequently mention the olive tree, always referring to it as the blessed tree or to olives as a precious fruit.

Ripe. Mature olives can also be preserved by salting them in a process used in Spain and especially Morocco, Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean; it produces just a little fermentation. Or they can be sun-dried, so that water will take away the tartness.

Stone Age. Prehistory is the period of human history that by convention precedes writing. It’s the same for the olive domestication, a history that remains a mystery. On the Greek island of Santorini, fossil olive leaves have been found dating back 37,000 years.

Tapenade. A tasty sort of salsa, typical of French cuisine, made using olives. Green and black olives are coarsely chopped with capers and anchovies, blended with oil and salt and finally spread on a crunchy baguette. The name comes from the term for olives used in Provence, a region, like the Côte d’Azur, that has a great olive-growing tradition in the country. In fact similar concoctions are widely made in Italy as well, and the first written recipe – invented in Rome – dates to the first century AD.

Ultrasound. The prototype of an innovative olive milling technique based on ultrasound was introduced in May 2015 in Campobasso, Italy. It optimises the milling process and yields an extra-virgin olive oil with high nutritional value and low environmental impact; it has been dubbed Ultra P.O.D.  Olive Oil.

Verdial. These are varieties grown in Spain and Portugal that remain green even when ripe.

Wales. Until a few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine anything more Mediterranean than the olive tree. But now, with global temperatures rising, the olive is heading for the mountains, and not just in the Mediterranean where it has crossed over the confines of the Alps: the northernmost olive orchard known can be found on the coasts of the island of Anglesey, where it was planted in 2007 as part of a pilot programme for commercial production for the United Kingdom.

Xylella fastidiosa. It’s been called “the olive Ebola”: the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which likely originated in the United States, has been devastating millennial olive trees in southern Italy and Spain.

Year 2014. This has been called a black year for olives, the worst harvest in recorded memory. Climate change and pests continue to jeopardise production, to the extent that some English experts have just declared that olive oil could be rationed starting next year, if the problem continues apace.

Zeus. According to Greek mythology, Athena, daughter of Zeus, planted the first olive tree, and for that reason Zeus granted the goddess sovereignty over Athens and Attica, recognising the olive tree as the most useful to mankind, the secret of long life and a panacea for every ill. A sacred plant: man was forbidden to touch it, and its wood could be used only for making religious statues.

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