The mythic Greek gods Athena and Poseidon once argued over who would rule the city of Attica. Zeus, the father of the gods, declared that the new ruler would be the one who could present him with a discovery that would most benefit mankind. Athena commanded Mother Earth to grow a new tree whose fruit would have almost magical powers. Upon beholding the albero d’olivo or ulivo (olive tree), Zeus pronounced Athena the winner.
The olive became revered as a symbol of life and fertility, and olive groves (oliveti or uliveti) spread throughout the Mediterranean. In the time of the Roman empire, the arca olearia (olive market) offered no fewer than 15 varieties, including tiny and tasty olives from Ascoli Piceno in the Marche region, which were served before a banquet to whet the appetite and afterward to clear the palate.
Many olive trees withered in the Dark Ages following the fall of Rome, but the Catholic Church, which made the olive branch a symbol of peace and used olive oil in sacred rites, helped preserve this natural resource. In monasteries throughout the peninsula, monks continued to cultivate olive trees and to experiment with various uses of their fruit.
Olive oil, they found, soothed itchy rashes, relieved headaches and stomach pain and alleviated ear infections. Chewing olive leaves strengthened the gums and kept teeth white. In the Renaissance, the influential de' Medici family promoted the cultivation of olives around Florence, while olive groves spread to other regions, including those around Siena, Arezzo, Pistoia, and Lucca.
Others may think of olives as simply black or green, but Italians recognize and appreciate regional varieties, such as moraiolo (a Tuscan olive that produces a fruity oil with an intense flavor), leccino (which produces an extremely mild, golden-yellow oil with a delicate almond flavor), frantoio (which yields a fruity green oil that is not aggressively olive-y) and taggiasca (a Ligurian olive that produces small fruit and a light aromatic oil). My favorite are Umbrian olives (above) from the magnificent estate of Monte Vibiano Vecchio (which you can tour, virtually, below).
Olives, delicious plain, pop up in all sorts of Italian dishes, from pasta sauces to pizza to breads and tapenades (crema or purè di olive). If, like me, you never quite know what to do with the pit (Il nocciolo dell’oliva), you may prefer your olives pitted (olive snocciolate).
But nothing matches the popularity of the elixir of the Mediterranean, olio d’oliva (olive oil). Some like olio aromatizzato (flavored olive oil–with truffles, for instance), but my preference is a classic extra-virgine ("virgin" indicates that the olives have been pressed to extract the oil without heat or chemicals).
This pure, unrefined oil, chockful of heart-healthy antioxidants, adds zest to even simple dishes. To make a perfect salad, an Italian saying goes, you need just four things:
* un prodigo (a spendthrift) to pour the olive oil,
* un avaro (miser) to add the vinegar,
* un saggio (a wise man) to add the salt and
* un pazzo (a crazy man) to mix them all together. Buon appetito!
Words and Expressions
olivastro, olivigno — brown, tanned, olive color
olivetta — cloth-covered button
raccolta delle olive — olive harvest
frantoio — olive press
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanted Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.
Click below to join a tour of the olive fields and frantoio of beautiful Monte Vibbiano Vecchio in Umbria: