In one variation of Greek Mythology, Athena, goddess of wisdom and war was competing with Poseidon, god of the sea, for the patronage of the growing Attica settlement: Poseidon struck the rock and a spring flowed, but it was salty water. Athena in turn touched the stoney ground and an olive tree grew. The olive tree was judged to be the more useful gift and the city became known as Athens.
The olive, in any case, is one of the oldest cultivars known to man. Originating in Asia Minor as a small shrub, the first indication of the fruit collected for food dates to the 8th millennium BC. Eventually making its way to the Mediterranean Basin by 6,000 BC, its earliest cultivation was Cretan, circa 3,000 BC. Resistant to heat and drought, the olive became the versatile economic base of the early Greeks providing food, heat, cooking fuel, light, medicine, perfume, fodder and shade.
Due to it’s long use and wide distribution the varietals of olives are daunting. Hundreds in number, modern genetic technology is proving that many of the cultivars are genetically identical but are known by names determined by their location. How is this? Olive trees are propagated by grafting or planting branches and roots. For this reason the offspring are clones.
Quick facts you may not know about olives:
The olive, like the almond, peach, cherry, plum and walnut, is a drupe—a thin skin, covering a fleshy interior, covering a single hard pit with an embedded kernel.
Olives are too bitter and hard to be eaten raw. There are different processes by which the olive is prepared for consumption: brine, water, lye, air and sun. The process involves fermentation, much like wine, using the bacterium, lactobacillus (LAB) that converts the natural sugar into lactic acid. Water- and salt-cures leach out the harsh bitter taste of oleuropein. Water and salt cures may take up to a year to produce.
There are no green olive cultivars. Green olives are olives picked before they are fully ripened and they must be treated with an alkalizing solution (lye) before they are brined.
Even the pits of the olive seed are crushed and the kernels are pressed for their oil.
Olives are harvested from October to December either by hand picking the ripe olives or by hitting the branches with canes. The olives fall onto the nets that are spread below the tree and hand sorting separates the ripe olives from the green olives.
Olives in Crete are stored in barrels with alternating layers of salt and “dry-cured” or fermented for 3 months.
Olives from Calamata, are hand sliced to allow the brine to quickly enter the flesh and speed up the fermentation.
Olives, known as Throumbes, from Thassos and Crete, are left on the branch to sun cure—these are the only known olives that can be eaten from the tree although they are usually undergo a short salt cure.
Olive trees can grow to be over 2,000 years old.
The most popular olive in Greece is the Calamon (Kalamata), followed by the Halkidiki, Amfissis (Delphi), Throumbes (Thassos), Manaki (mountain regions), Mavroelia (humid regions) Koroneiki (Peloponnese)