By Dylan Petley
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Vancouver
Not unlike democracy, olive cultivation kicked off in Southern Europe before eventually catching on nearly everywhere else…
Yet despite the fact that today, over 750 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide, this Mediterranean tree crop didn’t always enjoy international status. In fact, earliest indications place the first olives in Livorno, Italy, some 20 million years ago, but due to the distinct lack of warm baguette, balsamic vinegar and human life, they never really caught on.
The modern birth of olive farming came about in Crete in 5000 B.C. and expanded to Italy roughly ten minutes later. Italian tradition maintains that the five key ingredients necessary for producing quality olives are sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude – a depressing little checklist that apparently fit the bill in Syria, Palestine and Israel as well. Come 1500 B.C, Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt had come on board and by the time Caesar’s legions were skipping across Europe, this diminutive little fruit had become synonymous with the entire continent. But olive cultivation’s global explosion can be credited to the dawning of the Age of Exploration when suddenly, every sunny, stony, droughty, quiet and lonely place on the planet became fair game…
What makes the olive so popular? Among other things, its amazing oil. This “liquid gold” (as Homer so affectionately referred to it) has been used for everything from embalming to athletics to eating. As sacred as it is sumptuous, none of its magic has been lost over the centuries. Wherever you find yourself on this amazingly edible earth, you’ll never be too far from this tenacious little tree, its sacred fruit and its near-heavenly oil. Let’s spin the globe and prove it…
My Big Fat Greek Olives
Greece (a country that devotes 60% of its cultivating land to olive growing) is the planet’s top producer of the widely recognizable black olive. That being said, it also boasts more varieties than any other country in the world – Adramytiani, Doppia, Kalamata, Karydolia, Kolovi, Koroneiki, Manaki, Prassinolia, Psiloelia, Tsounati… Greece has a staggering 132 million trees – that’s almost 3 trees to every 1 human. It’s not surprising that they export almost half of their yearly crop. Most Greek olives are grown for the oil, however almost none of it is used for naked wrestling anymore. Greece’s main growing regions are Chalcedon, Crete, Lygourio and the Peloponnese.
When in Rome (or anywhere else)
There’s a good reason why people think olives when they think Italy… the country is home to over 300 varieties including Carolea, Castelvetrano, Cerignola, Coratina, Frantoio, Leccino, Nocellara, Ogliarota, Opalino and Taggiasca. Despite the distinctly different regional cuisines that characterize Italy (a result of the bygone days of city-states) olives and olive oil have made their way into almost every one of the country’s dishes. Italy’s main growing regions are Calabria Campagna, Latium, Liguria and Sicily.
Spain proudly holds the title of world’s leading olive exporter with over 5,000,000 acres of the Iberian Peninsula checkered with groves (close to 30% of the planet’s olive production acreage). In fact, the Spaniards have so many olives, they’re literally giving them away – many tapa bars supply heaping complimentary bowls with every round of frosty cervezas! Spanish olives are characterized by their wide variety of textures and flavours, popular varieties including Cornicabra, Empeltre, Hojiblanca, Manzanilla, Ocal, Picual, Picudo, and Verdial. Spain’s main growing regions are Andalusia, Aragon, Baena, Castille, Catalonia, Estremadura, Mancha, Priego de Cordoba, Sierra de Segura, Sierra Magina, Sierra Subbetica and Siurana.
Istanbul, not Constantinople
Turkey offers the world so much more than simply hookahs, kebabs and belly dancing. Among its less celebrated commodities are table olives, which are a huge home favourite. Every year, over 100 thousand tons are consumed domestically while only 10 thousand are exported. Some might call this greedy, but with varieties like Ayvalik, Donat, Ekiste, Elebi, Erkence, Gemlik, Ismir, Memecik, Memeli, Sofralik, Trilya, and Uslu… you can hardly blame them. Turkey’s main growing regions are the Aegean, Marmara, the Mediterranean and Southeast Anatolia.
Play it again, Sam…
Bogart or no Bogart, chances are that any real Moroccan piano bar will have olives on its menu. A surprisingly big player on the world market, this small North African nation enjoys a long cultural relationship with the hallowed olive. The Picholine Marocaine variety represents 98% of all Moroccan olive trees with the main growing regions located in the Southeast, the North and Central Morocco.
Food of the Pharoahs
In what might just be the earliest example of celebrity endorsement, the Egyptian goddess Isis was allegedly a big olive advocate, educating her followers on cultivating, pressing and oil production. Sadly, Isis has gone the way of the gods of Olympus but her hobby lives on through mouth-watering varieties such as Al Areesh, Alamin, Alex Desert Road, Rafah, Ismalia and Siwa. Egypt’s main growing regions are Aggezi, Hamed Siwi, Kalamata, Manzanilla and Picual.
Thanks to the early Spanish settlers, Argentina does more than just produce top-shelf vino and top-flight futbol players. In fact, if demand is any reflection on quality, Argentine olives are some of the best in the world. Twenty-nine countries import olives from Patagonia with the most common variety being the Arauco, a large, fleshy specimen found mostly in the growing regions of Cordoba, Mendoza, San Juan, San Luis, and Aimogasta.
Stars and Stripes (and Olives)
California is the primary olive-producing centre of the United States with Arizona, New Mexico and Texas also contributing. American olives only make up 1% of the word’s production, but sometimes, it’s a matter of quality over quantity. West Coast varieties include Ascolano, Manzanillo, Mission and Sevillano. California’s main growing regions are Butte County, Fresno County, Glenn County, King’s County, Tehama County and Tulare County.
South of the Rio Grande
Olives made it to sunny Mexico in the 1700’s courtesy of Spain’s Franciscan monks but soon made it beyond the Mission’s garden walls. It’s no great surprise that Mexico mirrors California in many of its varieties. The vast majority of its trade is in manzanillas but varieties such as Ascolano, Boroni, Frantoio, Mission, Nevadillo, Oblonga, Pendolina and Sevillano make appearances as well. Mexico’s main growing regions are Caborca and Sonora.
Humble beginnings aside, there’s no denying that today, olives are more internationally recognized than Michael Jackson. So hop on a plane to anywhere. Likely, there’ll be an oil, a pizza, a tapenade, a tapa dish or even a martini waiting for you, featuring Livorno’s 20 million year old secret.