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OLIVE

THE ORIGINAL OIL

WHILE ON THESE NORTHERN SHORES THE OLIVE AND ITS OIL WAS LARGELY FORGOTTEN, THE WORD ENDURED. BY THE 1300S, IT WAS BEING APPLIED TO OIL FROM ANY SOURCE, VEGETABLE OR ANIMAL, AND IN 1520, IT WAS FIRST USED TO DESCRIBED A MUCH DARKER GOLD – PETROLEUM.

Head south and the bruised greens and greys of the north are replaced by the sage, beige, and silver tones of the Mediterranean. The earth bares rocks like teeth, cracked and marbled, to reflect back the sunlight. Seemingly as old as the stones themselves, an ocean of olive trees twist iron hard trunks up out of the thirsty land. Many of these sentinels are centuries old and each nation bordering this inland sea claims a handful of venerable specimens whose age is counted in millennia. The oldest – whose age carbon dating is yet to prove or disprove – stands in Bshaale, Lebanon, and is said to be over six thousand years old.

The grizzled bodies of these ancient trees are incongruously topped by silvery halos of elegant, tapered leaves. The dove brought back an olive branch to Noah as testament that the flood waters were finally receding, and the goddess Athena offered one to those would build a city in her name. The descendant of her original tree still stands in the Parthenon, so they say, high above the modern urban sprawl. Olive branches were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb and the Romans offered them to deities, conquerors and heroes alike.

Come springtime, these branches give forth a dusting of white blossoms, and then their bitter fruit. Inedible when plucked from the boughs, the olives only give up their unique flavour after being packed in salt or cured in jars filled with brine. Those left on the tree blush from green to purple, and are harvested and crushed under giant millstones to extract their precious, deep golden green oil.

This fruit and its oil was first named elaiá in an unknown tongue spoken on the shores of the sparking Aegean. The Greeks borrowed the word, which then passed into Latin as oleum where it flourished from Canterbury to İstanbul under the Pax Romana. As the bitter winter of the Dark Ages drew in, Rome’s influence crumbled and vanished under the weight of invasion and plague, and Latin fractured into the Romance tongues. In Old French, oleum became oile and then passed into English as ‘oil’. While on these northern shores the olive and its oil was largely forgotten, the word endured. By the 1300s, it was being applied to oil from any source, vegetable or animal, and in 1520, it was first used to described a much darker gold – petroleum. Olives finally made their way back into these northerly kitchens, but not until Roman roads were retraced by the tourist trails of the twentieth century. Today, olives are served on tables the world over, and the ocean of olive trees now drowns around ten million hectares of land. While olives will ripen wherever there is light enough to sustain them, almost every one is still harvested from its original homeland; those beige, sage and silver soils lapped by the Mediterranean.

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