Olives: One of Earth's greatest gifts, they nourish literature as well as readers

November 24, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Ben Franklin famously wrote, "Wine is the surest proof we have that God loves us and loves to see us happy." To wine, many civilized people would add olives, and to that immutable verity they would add that God loves as well to see us healthy.

High among these people is Mort Rosenblum, author of "Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit," (North Point/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 316 pages. $25). His private estimation: "Olives, like grapes, are essential to any life worth living. But you can't see by the light of burning wine, or massage a friend's temples in grape juice, or heat a house with vines."

One could quibble with the last two points, but it should be hard to find an argument about the main conclusion, at least among humans who have access to food forms that have evolved where the olive tree can grow - south of "butter country," the eating habits of which are despised by olive people.

Olives precede history and rise above faith. To Christians, Jews, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox, the tree, the fruit and the oil reach back before the written or remembered word.

A dove brought an olive sprig to Noah's Ark, suggesting it was the one - or the first - vegetable form to survive the Flood. The cross on which Jesus died was made of olive wood. Gethsemane means "olive press."

Oleo europaea, a cousin of jasmine and lilac, has left fossilized leaves traced to 37,000 B.C. Botanists agree individual olive trees do not grow older than about 700 years, but still people argue that actual trees living today go back to the days of the Roman Empire, to the time of Jesus. Olives yielded the original oil that brought ceaseless battle to the Eastern Mediterranean, long before petroleum.

Let them eat olives

Today, there are 700 cultivated varieties of olive trees, which produce fruit of very different size, color, texture, density and flavor. Their oils vary just as much, or more.

There are some 800 million olive trees in the world, which works out as one for every six children, women and men on Earth. Annually, 2 million metric tons of olive oil are sold, involving some $10 billion.

A special correspondent for the Associated Press, Mort Rosenblum has written seven previous books and was a foreign correspondent for years. Most importantly, in 1986 he bought a five-acre farm in Provence. On it were a mass of miserably neglected olive trees. He studied, pruned, cultivated, grafted, talked, listened, and went balmy over the things.

Out of this madness has risen a delicious book. It is a blend of first-rate travel writing and first-rate food writing - and over all a kind of richly dimensioned historical-sociology of lands, races and tribes held together by the single fact of their devotion to the olive - tree, fruit, oil.

The work can be read through almost as a novel. But it also can be handled very nicely by reading the first, scene-setting 40 pages or so and then dipping from place to place: the south of France, Israel, Spain, Tunisia, Greece, Morocco, California, and many distinct parts of Italy.

Rosenblum's love for olive growers and oil makers is a passion I well understand, having come to the same state of heart years ago when I used to write regularly about wine. Lives devoted to pleasures of aroma and flavor, to textures in the mouth, are richly sensual. Lives that are dominated by the earth and weather, by forces beyond the maddest ambitions of human control, often are both ecstatic and profoundly accepting.

Rosenblum writes, in loving anecdote and clean-lined reportage of such lives, and of an immensely complex industry.

There is bitter tension between Italy and Spain and Italy and other olive-oil producers. Italians control the international market. Others' oils, brought into Italy, are blended, sometimes with Italian oils sometimes not, and bottled and sold internationally as Italian. Within Italy, there is elaborate diversity of tree, method and marketing.

Americans are catching on. National consumption in 1982 was 64 million pounds and in 1994 was 250 million. But still, only one American household out of five uses it at all.

Fact vs. fad

And, yes, in California there is building an olive oil industry with ambitions to produce great oils, more or less as the wine revolution happened there in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Extra Virgin" means that the oil contains 1 percent acidity or less and meets some other fairly simple quality standards. Olive oil sold in America as "light" or "lite" is light only in color. It has precisely the same amount of calories as any other - 125 per tablespoon. It is cheaper to make and inferior, but marketers know a food faddist when one is lurking about.

The case for the healthiness of olive oil is clinically very detailed. There is no question that in terms of heart, circulation and susceptibility to a number of cancers and other diseases, it is much better for humans than any animal fats, including all dairy products.

What is the best olive oil? That depends on you. There are no objective absolutes. It is a very personal matter. France, Italy, Sardinia, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, California, other lands and regions - all claim great oils, and within most of the producing areas there are enormous variances in style, quality and flavor.

Rosenblum keeps a dozen or more different ones in his kitchen, for specific purposes depending on density, acidity, flavor, edge - and in the case of frying, expense. He recommends tasting as many as possible, on plain bread, clearing the mouth with bubbly water, and settling on your own favorite or favorites.

Very little olive oil ages well. Use it within the year. Store it in the dark. Do not refrigerate. Bring small amounts into sunlight at a time.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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