The olive tree, with its ancient roots, is strongly identified with a region and a cuisine. More than just a tree, it has come to symbolize peace, wisdom, persistence, longevity, healing, prosperity, stability, friendship, victory and tranquility. Why is such importance attributed to this dusty, twisted, gnarly shrub?
The olive tree is a small evergreen tree that is indigenous to the Mediterranean basin. Olive groves ring the Mediterranean Sea from Portugal to Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Levant, Egypt and along the North African coast to Morocco. The olive has coexisted with people in the region for more than five thousand years. In fact, there are many olive trees in the Mediterranean that are over a thousand years old, many of which still produce olives. The olive tree likes hot, sunny weather and can tolerate droughts due to its extensive root system. Of course olive trees produce olives which in turn are made into olive oil. The olive is the most important crop in the Mediterranean and a staple in the Mediterranean diet. The top ten olive producing countries in the world are from the region (led by Spain followed by Greece, Italy and Turkey). Olive oil is produced by pressing olives and extracting the oil either by mechanical or chemical methods. There are various grades of olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil and is extracted mechanically without chemicals. It has the lowest acidity and the best taste. Virgin olive oil is also extracted by mechanical means, but it is slightly more acidic and slightly less flavorful.
More than just a plant, the olive tree has deep cultural significance. In Greek mythology there was a competition between Poseidon and Athena for the soul of the major Greek city. Poseidon struck his trident on the rock and a salty spring burst forth. Athena did the same and an olive tree grew. The citizens felt that the olive tree was the more precious gift. From that time on the city was called Athens and the olive tree was ingrained in the Greek psyche. In other Greek lore, the olive tree is a central theme in the Odyssey. Odysseus incorporates an old olive tree that is on his plot of land into the house that he builds. Stone walls were built around the tree and the trunk was used as a bedpost. Since he builds his house around the tree, the tree itself becomes the focal point of the house. The old olive tree symbolizes permanence and stability as well as the love between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, a connection that cannot be uprooted. Olive oil has its own cultural, spiritual and culinary importance. Keeping the focus on ancient Greece, athletes rubbed themselves with olive oil and the victors in the original Olympic Games were crowned with olive branches. The importance of olive oil cannot be overstated. Kings were anointed with it; it was burned in sacred lamps in temples and in the lamp for the eternal Olympic flame. Of course, olives were a staple of the ancient diet (along with grains and grapes) and olive oil remains an integral part of the Mediterranean cuisine from ancient times until today.
In modern times, the Mediterranean diet has become the standard for heart healthy eating. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, fish, plant-based protein and herbs and spices to flavor food. Of course, olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet. Unrestricted use of olive oil in cooking and at the table increases the palatability of salads and vegetables, allowing people to consume more. Because of this, olive oil is felt to be the ideal culinary fat. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols. Monounsaturated fatty acid in olive oil is the principal source of fat in the Mediterranean diet and when substituted for saturated fats or carbohydrates, lowers cholesterol and the risk for heart disease. Polyphenols have antioxidant activity and further reduce cardiac disease, cholesterol and diabetes. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower the rate of heart attack, stroke and cardiac death by a substantial 30%, a risk reduction similar to taking medications such as statins to lower cholesterol. Most of the information about olive oil has been obtained from Mediterranean populations. Recently, a large study (9,800 patients followed over 24 years) shed light on olive oil’s effects in a US population. The study found that using 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil each day reduced the risk of cardiac disease and cardiac death. The benefit of olive oil is still present, despite much lower consumption in the US group. The US consumption of olive oil is about 12 grams per day while the Mediterranean consumption is more than twice as high (25 grams per day). It seems that olive oil can prevent heart disease in diverse populations, even in small amounts.
So, by replacing butter, margarine, mayonnaise or dairy fat with an equivalent amount of olive oil you can live longer and have less heart disease. You might even feel like a king.
Disclaimer: the author’s family owned an olive orchard in southern Greece for many years, so olive bias may be at play.