Oil tree, Zaytun (arabic), Mãsline (Romanian), Zeytin (turkish), Aceituna (Spanish), Eliá (Greek)
This small, graceful, evergreen tree, stretching its branches to the heavens as it flickers its silvery-gray leaves in the light sunny breeze, characterizes the cultivated regions of Mediterranean countries like no other plant. Olive trees have a timeless feel to them - young trees can look old, while old trees still express an ageless, graceful beauty. They are among the more long-lived species of trees and can reach a ripe old age of over 500 years. No wonder the ancients regarded the Olive tree as a manifestation of the ever-present life-force: evergreen and long-lived, with a tenacious will to survive against the odds in dry and inhospitable places, or giving rise to saplings shooting from the base, even when they are cut back to a stump.
Olive trees are relatively small and slow growing trees, rarely reaching more than 15 m of height in the wild. Cultivated trees are usually trimmed back each season and rarely exceed 6 m in height. The stem often looks gnarled and twisted, with a rough, fissured gray bark. It has a strong, dense wood with a beautiful, close grain.
The narrow, leathery leaves are dark green on the upper side and silvery gray underneath. They are lanceolate with entire margins and growing in opposite pairs. They are replaced every few years when the tree looses its old leaves and simultaneously replaces them with new ones so that the it is never without leaves.
The tiny, cream colored and fragrant flowers are borne on stalks that arise from the leaf axils in spring. Two types of flowers are produced: some that contain both male and female parts and some that only contain stamens. The trees rely on the wind for pollination. It is beneficial to grow different varieties of olive trees together, as some species are self-incompatible, and cross-pollination improves their fruit.
The trees begin to bear fruit after they reach 4 years of age. The fresh fruits have an intensely bitter taste, which is subsequently extracted by subjecting them to a curing process, involving either lye, salt or brine (see recipes). The size, shape and color of the fruits, which botanically are classified as drupes (a stone fruit, like e.g. plums), vary hugely among different varieties. Some are oval or round, while others are elongated and some even have pointed tips. Most varieties are dark purplish black, or bronze/brown when ripe, though there are a few varieties that stay green even when ripe. Most commercially available green olives though, are picked when they are fully grown yet not fully matured. The ripe, black olives bruise easily and require careful handling. Commercial Californian canned black olives are actually 'faked' as their black color is not the result of ripeness, but rather produced by exposing green olives to air after they have undergone the lye treatment to extract the bitterness. This effect is not considered desirable among European producers or consumers and exposure to air after the lye treatment is carefully avoided.
Olive trees do not breed true from seed, which means that cultivated varieties are always propagated from cuttings, as those grown from seed revert to the small fruited wild varieties. The trees are not too fussy about soil requirements, but prefer a well-drained spot, even if it is in rocky or sandy soil. Olive trees are one of the least sprayed commercial crops as there are few pests and diseases that attack them.
Olive trees are a subtropical species of semi-arid climates. They can cope with several months of little or no rain, but do not tolerate prolonged spells of cold, wet weather. They are ideally adapted to the Mediterranean climate in which they are at home. Even there they can sometimes suffer severely, if the winter is particularly harsh. They do, however, require a cold spell of several months during which temperatures fall to below 7 °C(44 °F), but never below -9 °C(15 °F) in order to set fruit.
Olive trees have long been grown clinging to terraced hillsides, on poor soils and arid climates. Considering the poor growing conditions, its gifts are more than generous, as it will grow where not much else does. The planting of olive trees in such dry, sandy hillsides has a stabilizing effect on erosion.
Which of the many Gods of the Olymp might serve the city of Athens best as its protective deity? Not an easy choice to make and one that could well bring peril with the choosing. Faced with this difficult question, the king of Athens wisely decided to put the Gods to the test and told them that whoever made the most useful gift to his people shall become the city's patron God. Neptune/Poseidon came along and struck his trident into the ground and from it sprang a saltwater spring, which flowed and flowed and would not stop flowing, - thus creating the Aegean Sea. However, Athene, the Goddess of wisdom and justice came and planted an Olive tree, right by the Acropolis. The king, being a clever sort of king, happily accepted her gift, for he knew that the Olive tree is one of the most precious and useful plants for mankind. He put his trust into the tree to bestow health, wealth and happiness to his city.
The Olive tree is thought to have originated in Asia Minor, where it was cultivated as early as 6000 years ago. From there it spread to the eastern Mediterranean, where it is known to have been cultivated since 3000 BC. From there it did not take long for it to spread throughout the Mediterranean region, which is still one of the most important region of cultivation today, although other countries with a Mediterranean climate, such as Chile, South Africa and California, New Zealand, Mexico and many others, have also adopted this gift from the Goddess Athena.
The ancient civilizations of Asia Minor certainly valued this precious tree - and not just for culinary purposes, either. The ancient Egyptians used it in their embalming recipes to preserve the mummies of their kings as well as in the preparation of numerous cosmetic lotions and potions, pomades and pastes.
In the times before electricity and paraffin, Olive oil was also widely used as a lamp oil and in the days of antiquity, that meant it kept the sacred flames in the temples burning. Olive oil was considered a numinous substance, which served as a sacred salve or consecration oil to purify the physical body in honor of the Gods. The ancient Greek greeting 'salve' meaning as much as 'may you be oiled' implies this use of Olive oil as a blessing and sanctifying substance. The word 'salvation' takes it's meaning from the same root.
The Bible is full of references to the sacred Olive trees and even the Old Testament bears witness to its importance: Moses exempted from the military service those who devoted their time to Olive cultivation. Elsewhere we hear that Noah received the message that peace and tranquility had returned to earth, by way of a dove that carried a twig of Olive in its beak. It is not surprising that Olive has come to symbolize peace and protection, and some people even argue that the tree of life in the garden of Eden must have been an Olive tree.
Olive oil was also important in personal hygiene, comparable to the role of its modern cousin: soap. Even today some natural product stores offer fine Olive oil soap, containing little more than Olive oil and beeswax (with the addition of lye during the production process ). For those who are not afraid to experiment with a little kitchen chemistry, such soaps can easily be prepared at home. In the old days, the pure oil, or one infused with fragrant herbs was used to thoroughly oil the body and thus to make it 'shiny', which was regarded as an attribute of beauty. Dry skin and hair were considered dirty.
At the original Olympic games athletes were always thoroughly 'oiled' before entering the games and the winner was originally honored with a wreath made of Olive twigs. Later, when Apollo took over the patronage for the games, the wreath was wound from Bay laurel twigs, which are sacred to Apollo.
Olive oil also played an important role in medicine, not just for its own remedial properties, but also as a basis for innumerable healing oils and salves. The fact that Olive oil resists oxidation made it a great medium to preserve foods and medicines, a practice, which is still common today.
The Olive tree has always symbolized good health and longevity - even today the healthfulness of the Mediterranean diet is largely ascribed to the beneficial properties of Olive oil and, to a lesser part, the olives themselves. In fact, Mediterranean cuisine is unthinkable without Olive oil and Olives, though the latter, while still a common and important aspects of the daily diet, are much less important today than they used to be. Today, 860,000 tons of table Olives are produced annually, which by weight amounts to about half the quantity of Olive oil, which reaches 1,662,000 tons a year.
The fresh fruits of the Olive tree, the raw Olives, are very bitter. To make them palatable Olives are cured to extract the bitterness. Traditionally the green or black olives are either pickled in brine or cured in salt for several weeks. Another process, which dates back to Roman times and is still commonly employed today, involves treatment with lye prior to pickling the Olives in brine. Their healthful qualities are largely attributed to the remainder of a substance present in their bitter juice: oleuropein.
Once the bitterness is extracted, Olives are prepared in a myriad of different ways, and every village seems to have its own recipe. One can commonly find them marinated with herbs, and/ or garlic, stuffed with almonds, roasted pepper or anchovies, or, more exotically, with lemon and chillies. The variations are endless and market stalls in Mediterranean countries offer at least a dozen different varieties of both black and green olives.
Olive oil, the favorite kitchen oil of almost any chef, comes in various grades of quality, depending on the method of extraction. The finest quality, known as 'extra virgin olive oil' or 'native olive oil extra' is extracted by low-pressure cold pressing of the fruit, which yields a light colored greenish-yellow and highly aromatic oil. The second pressing is done at higher pressure and higher temperatures. It is a little less fragrant and is usually referred to as 'Virgin Olive Oil' or 'Native Olive Oil'. Subsequent pressings yield a low quality oil which needs further processing before it is fit for human consumption. This oil is labeled 'refined olive oil'.
Mediterranean people have also long valued the medicinal properties of the Olive tree. Both the bark and the leaves were commonly used to treat feverish infections, and not just the common cold, or the flu but even malaria. The leaves, like the raw fruit, are very bitter, due to the presence of the same bitter substance known as oleuropein, which modern research has shown to have some amazing healthful properties.
Although this compound was first isolated and identified in 1900, it was not until 1962 that an Italian researcher recorded its hypotensive action on animals. Further studies not only verified the findings of the Italian scientist, but also found that Oleuropein increases blood flow to the coronary arteries, regulates irregular heartbeat and prevents intestinal muscle spasms. A Dutch scientist identified a further constituent of Oleuropein, known as 'elenolic acid', which he found to have an inhibiting effect on the growth of viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. In 1970 a safety study was conducted, which showed that calcium elenolate did not seem to have any undesired side effects, even when administered in extra-large quantities.
Yet, there was a problem. While experiments showed 100% effectiveness against all the viruses the leaf extract had been tested for in vitro,* it was found that in the human body the healing compounds were binding to the proteins in the blood serum, which reduced their efficacy. While research interest among the major drug companies diminished, further research carried on quietly. Eventually the binding problem of elenolic acid was overcome and the full healing potential of Olive leaves had become accessible. The new research also cast some light onto the mechanism in which this compound works:
Apparently elenolic acid destroys the outer lining of microbes, which effectively kills them. Scientists at the University of Milan also confirmed the antioxidant properties of oleuropein as they found that it inhibited the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol), thus explaining Olive oil's apparent beneficial effect on the heart. Futhermore, researchers at Spain's University of Granada found oleuropein to be a vasodilator, (relaxing arterial walls), which verifies earlier findings that Olive products increase blood supply to the coronary arteries and having a regulating effect on high blood pressure. Finally, Tunisian pharmacists found that an aqueous extract of Olive leaf reduces hypertension, blood sugar levels and the levels of uric acid in rodents, which again confirms potential use in the treatment of high blood pressure, as well as diabetes and heart disease. Elevated uric acid levels may be a risk factor for heart disease.
Since 1995 natural product companies have started to produce Olive leaf extracts that are formulated to overcome the binding problem to the serum proteins. These leaf extracts usually come in capsule form, which may also make them easier to take, considering the bitter taste of the tea. The high concentration of the extract also ensures that the healing components are taken in sufficiently high quantities to be effective even against highly persistent viruses and bacteria. Some of the reports of their effectiveness have been remarkable, even in the treatment of severely immune-system compromising conditions such as Lupus and Lymes disease, as well as HIV and other retroviruses, and in the treatment of opportunistic infections concurrent with AIDS. The compounds of the Olive leaf extract not only have the ability to interfere with the virus's ability to reproduce, but they also stimulate the immune system response. Olive leaf extract maybe one of the most powerful herbal defence preparations available to combat a whole series of modern ailments, yet, so far, few people are aware of the potential. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the extract undergoes a chemical process before it becomes the powerful healing agent it promises to be. Yet, even for those who prefer more 'natural' remedies, Olives, Olive oil and Olive leaf decoction all make valuable contributions to health and well-being. Even if one never does anything more than change one's dietary habits to replace all fats with Olive oil, one will likely reap at least some of the benefits of this healthful plant, most notably with regard to one's heart. Heart disease is one of the major killers in so-called 'civilized' countries, yet in places like Greece for example, where 90% of the fat consumed is derived from Olives, heart disease is virtually non-existent.
The age old gifts of this tree, peace and plenty, seem well worth remembering in this day and age.
* viruses the leaf extract was tested for with excellent results: herpes, vaccinia, pseudorabies, Newcastle, Coxsacloe A 21, encepthlomyocarditis, polio 1, 2, and 3, vesicular stomititus, sindbis, reovirus, Moloney Murine leukemia, Rauscher Murine leukemia, Moloney sarcoma, and many influenza and parainfluenza type viruses.
*Bacteria and parasitic protozoans, the leaf extract was tested for with equally positive results: lactobacillus plantarum W50, brevis 50, pediococcus cerevisiae 39, leuconostoc mesenteroides 42, staphylococcus aureus, bacillus subtilis, enterobacteraerogenes NRRL B-199, E. cloacae NRRL B-414, E. coli, salamonella tyhimurium, pseudomonas fluorescens, P. solanacearum, P. lachrymans, erwinia carotovora, E. tracheiphila, xanthomonas vesicatoria, corynesbacterium Michiganese, plasmodium falciparum, virax and malaria.)
Further information: http://www.alphazee.com/olive-leaf/olea.html
Leaves - fresh or as extract
Leaves - year round,
oleuropein, apegenin, calcium, cinchonine, choline, luteoline,
oleuropein, momsaturated fatty acids, beta-carotene, caffeic acid, calcium, verbascocide, uvaol, minerals including Calcium, Magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and to a lesser extend, Iron, Zink, and Copper. Vitamins: carotenes, riboflavin, and thiamin, squaline, rutin, protocatechuic-acid, oleic acid,
66% oleic acid, 12% linoleic acid, 9% palmitic acid, 5% eicosenoic acid and 5% palmitoleic acid. Olive oil may contain up to 1.5% of an acyclic triterpene hydrocarbon, carotenoids, chlorophyll, squalene
benzoic acid and olivile
febrifuge, immune system stimulant, hypotensive, astringent, antiseptic
A decoction of the fresh leaves (a handful of fresh leaves simmered in two cups of water till the quatity of liquid is reduced to one cup) has traditionally been used to treat feverish infections such as the flu and the common cold, but also more serious infections such as malaria and dengue fever. It has also been used to treat sore throats as well as urinary inflammations and to provide a general boost to the immune system. Externally, the decoction can be employed as a wash to clean wounds and treat inflammatory skin conditions, rashes, boils and ulcers. The fresh leaves can be chewed for inflammations of the gums or ulcers of the mucous membranes of the mouth. The juice, expressed with wine or water, or a decoction of the leaves have the same effect. They can also be made into suppositories to treat candida and 'the white flux' as the ancients would have said. Dioscorides holds the healing power of the wild Olive tree superior to that of the cultivated varieties.
Recently a leaf-extract has been studied, with excellent results for the treatment of viral and bacterial infections as well as parasitic infections such fungal conditions. The leaf extract has a marked positive effect on the heart, increasing coronary bloodflow and lowering blood pressure, while also inhibiting the oxidation of 'bad cholesterol'. It also reduces uric acid concentration, which can be a contributing factor in heart disease as well as arthritic and rheumatoid conditions. It is also said to reduce the blood sugar levels, making it a valuable supportive remedy for diabetes sufferers. The leaf extract has produced excellent results in boosting immune system response to viral conditions such as the flu, pneumonia and the common cold as well as in the treatment of serious immune system debilitating conditions, such a lupus, lyme disease, Eppstein Barr virus (chronic fatigue), fibromyalgia and a host of others. The potential health benefits of the leaf extract are too numerous to mention here, Follow this link to further interesting information :
Olive leaf tea can produce an upset stomach when taken on an empty stomach. Large doses of the leaf extract occasionally give rise to a 'die-off' effect, characterized by headaches and gastro-intestinal disturbance, due to the fact that high doses of Olive leaf extract can 'kill-off' large numbers of pathogens, which can produce a temporary feeling of unwellness. This is due to the fact that the body can't cope with eliminating the dead pathogens quickly enough. If this happens, simply reduce the dosage. There is no toxicity associated with Plive leaf extract.
cholagogue, a nourishing demulcent, emollient and laxative
Olive oil is a superb medium for the infusion of healing herbs and the preparation of salves. Its antioxidant properties resist the natural process of decay of such preparations, even without adding other preserving agents. Olive oil is also demulcent, emollient and mildly laxative. Internally it can be used as a mild but effective laxative that will lubricate and soften hard stools. It is also sometimes used in combination with lemon juice to soften and expel gallbladder stones, though this procedure is not without certain risks and should not be attempted without the supervision of a qualified medical practitioner. Olive oil reduces the secretion of hydrochloric acid, thus being beneficial for people who suffer from an over acidic stomach. Like the leaves and fruit, the oil also contains oleuropein, and shares the health benefits on the heart. It is a healthful oil to use for food as it is rich in monosaturated fatty acids, and has a certain vasodilatory effect on the arterial walls, helping to reduce blood pressure and increasing the blood supply to the heart. Externally olive oil is used to soothe inflamed skin or cosmetically, to preserve its smoothness and the luster of the hair. It is also said to be useful for dandruff. Its emollient qualities can be employed to treat calluses and hardened skin and is sometimes also used as a soothing enema for an ulcerated intestinal tract or hemorrhoids.
The fruit as such are not commonly used for medicinal purposes anymore, though the oil expressed from them has many useful health benefits (see above). Dioscorides is the only one who mentions the use of the cured Olives:
"mashed (cured) Olives applied as a poultice to scalds and burns prevent the formation of blisters and cleanse dirty wounds. The Olive juice from the pickling brine astringes the gums and tightens loose teeth. The yellowish olives are hard to digest, but strengthen the stomach. The black, ripe olives decay easily and are bad for the stomach. Prepared as a poultice they open up boils and inhibit gangrene."
astringent, bitter, febrifuge
The bark is no longer commonly used for healing purposes today, though in the Mediterranean region it is an ancient folk remedy for feverish conditions such as malaria, dengue fever as well as the symptoms of the common cold and flu.
In the olden days the resinous exudates of the stem (gomme d'olivier') was used as a vulnerary to treat infectious skin conditions, ulcers and gangrene.
The keywords for the olive remedy are 'Complete exhaustion' and 'Mental fatigue'.
To make pickled olives from the fresh fruit (traditional methods)
Wash the ripe, black olives and place them in a wicker basket. Cover well with coarse sea salt. Place the basket in the sun and cover with a muslin cloth. Twice a day for at least a week stir the olives around. Keep this up until the bitter flavour has been extracted. At night bring the basket indoors to prevent mould. You need to place a dish underneath container, as the extracted liquid will escape through the holes in the basket.
Place the washed ripe (black) olives in a sterilized crock or glass jar. Cover with a strong solution of salt water: 1 cup of sea salt to each quart water - making sure all the olives are submerged. Cover with a round of pickling paper and place a sterilized weight, such as a small rock on top to keep the olives submerged in the water. The Olives may remain in this brine for months, but should at least be kept in it for a minimum of 2 months before tasting them. Marinate with herbs, garlic and olive oil before serving.
Green olives are usually subjected to a treatment involving lye prior to pickling. This method goes back to Roman times. Various herbs and spices can be added to the brine to refine the flavour of the resulting olives.
Olive oil is not just delicious; due to its high percentage of mono-saturated oils it is also healthy. Unlike many other fats it is low in cholesterol and even has a beneficial effect on the heart. It is excellent cooking oil. Its characteristic flavour adds an unmistakable dimension to any food, but is particularly noteworthy in salad dressings. The oil derived from the second pressing lends itself better for cooking purposes, as its smoke point is higher. To further increase the smoke point one can use half butter / half Olive oil e.g. for frying.
Olive oil lends itself perfectly for infusing herbs to create either flavoured oils for cooking, aromatic oils as massage and bath oils, or healing oils and salves. The basic procedure is the same. Take dried herbs, fill into a sterilized container and cover with olive oil. Leave to infuse in a warm place for several weeks. Strain out the herbs and pour the liquid into a sterilized bottle.
There have been warnings about infusing garlic in olive oil, the scare being that it would breed harmful micro-organism. The thing to consider is that oils without any preservatives do have a limited shelf life before they go rancid. However, when the oil is prepared in a clean environment using sterilized equipment, the risks are minimal and the shelf life can be up to 6 months in a tightly closed jar. Also, the risk of the oil going off is increased when materials are used that are not dry, e.g. fresh garlic. It will still be fine for a minimum of a week or two if kept in the fridge, but the oil should be monitored. If a slimy film develops, throw it away.
Many people like using fresh or only slightly wilted herbs for infusion, steaming of the excess water component of the herbs by infusing the oil at a low heat in a double boiler. However, I have found oils prepared by this method much more liable to deteriorate than those infused with dry plant material.
For cooking purposes, herbs such as Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano, Estragon, Basil, Bay leaves and Chilie pepper, Juniper berries, Fennel Seeds, Coriander seeds, and Pepper corns lend themselves well for making aromatic oils.
Rosemary Chilie Oil
Dry the Rosemary for a couple of days, place all ingredients in a sterilized bottle and cover with 700ml of oil. Leave to infuse in a warm place for two weeks. Strain and return to the bottle, or use a new, sterilized bottle. Close tightly. Should keep for approximately 5 weeks.
Proceed as above. The longer the Chillies are allowed to infuse the spicier the resulting oil will become.
Aromatic/ infused healing oils
Aromatic massage or bath oils can be prepared by filling a jar with dried plant material to the top. Cover with olive oil and mix well, allowing air bubbles to escape. Use a lower quality, less fragrant olive oil, otherwise it will overpower the aromas of the infused herbs. Also, the lower quality olive oils are lighter and less greasy on the skin. Cover tight and allow to stand in a warm place for a week. Strain. If a stronger oil is desired, repeat the process reusing the already infused oil to increase its potency. The same process is used for healing oils, e.g. calendula or comfrey oil. To make a quick salve, melt some beeswax and warm the oil you want to use. When the wax is melted, slowly add the oil and stir continuously. You can test the hardness of the salve letting a few drops of the mixture harden on a cold surface. Don't use too much beeswax or the ointment will be too solid and hard to spread. If you encounter this problem you can always reheat the ointment and add a bit more oil.
A quick and easy method to make aromatic oils for massage is to simply add essential oils to a quantity of olive oil. Never use more than 2% essential oil in a base oil, though, and inform yourself thoroughly on the properties of the essential oils you intend to use, as some oils can cause allergic reactions. Remember, essential oils are extremely concentrated and a little goes a long way!
Olive oil is an ideal medium to preserve aromatic herbs as herb pastes that can be used for cooking. Pesto is perhaps the best known herbal cooking paste, but there are many others.
Here is a basic recipe for a delicious pesto:
Take two bunches of basil, cut them up roughly and place in a food processor; add the garlic, and a little olive oil. Blend until smooth. Carefully add the grated parmesan cheese and the chillies. (The amount of chillies is variable. If you like it hot, by all means add more, if you don't, perhaps one will be sufficient.) If the paste becomes too dry, add a little more olive oil until you get a nice smooth, not too runny, not too stodgy consistency. Stir in the pinon nuts and some salt to taste, and your basic pesto is ready.
© Kat Morgenstern 2003
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