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Branch of history

The olive tree and olive fruit have helped shape ancient and modern worlds

By Suzanne Biro

In these days of threatened war and active terrorism there is increasing anxiety for all countries and families. Sadly, civilization coexists with war and always has. For as long as there has been war there has always been the hope for peace, symbolized in both ancient and modern times by the branch of the olive tree. Indeed, the olive tree and its fruit are one of the oldest crops; evidence of its cultivation dates back to as early as the Bronze age (17 th -12 th century BC). Of the many references to the olive tree in the Bible, the most memorable is that of the dove returning to Noah’s ark with a silvery leafed branch clutched in its beak, a token of nearby dry land after the great flood.

It is amazing to wonder how the first cured olive might have been discovered. The fruit fresh from the tree is so bitter it is all but inedible. The fruit must undergo a lengthy curing process to leach out the bitter glucosides, either in salt, brine or lye, before it is transformed into the delicious tidbit that we buy in the grocery store. Most likely an olive tree dropped its fruit into tidal pools, the "berries" sitting in the salt solution long enough before being plucked and eaten by a hungry fisherman.

This discovery revolutionized the ancient world. In the 6th century BC Greece was unable to grow its own wheat and desperately needed a product of equal value to trade. Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed that olive oil should be the sole agricultural export of Greece. As a result the landscape was drastically altered forever. Up until this point ancient Greece had already used up much of its forest for building houses and ships and as fuel. The few remaining fibrous-rooting trees were replaced with the long tap-rooted olive tree. Without the fibrous roots to hold the topsoil in place it quickly blew to the wind, leaving the Greek landscape denuded and bare forever after. Hey, decimating the landscape for profit is not just a recent environmental concern. Anyway, this caused Plato (5th century BC) to lament the loss of Greece’s beloved "green meadows, woods and springs."

Today much of the world’s production of olives and olive oil remains in the Mediterranean area. The trees are small evergreens that live up to 600 years (there are some trees which are said to be as old as 2,000 years). Of the world’s production of olives, 93 per cent is used for oil extraction and the remaining 7 per cent for cured fruit. There are many types of olive, that vary in size and flavour, but all must undergo the curing process to be used for the table.

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