Nature's gift ... a reflection on olive oil and olive trees
Updated: Apr 9, 2022
Ancient olive trees in a garden in Italy (photo from Wikipedia)
An old friend rang me up one day a few years ago to ask my advice about a tree for the front yard of her new house in the Perth suburb of Claremont. She wanted something that was hardy, didn't require much looking after, didn't drop leaves everywhere, and had nice summer shade. After humming and mumbling for a while over several of my favourite native eucalypts (maybe a Coral Gum? perhaps a Rose Mallee?) I decided to break with tradition and suggested an olive tree. Apart from meeting all of the criteria she had set me, the olive is a beautiful tree, with silvery green foliage and smooth silvery bark. There would also be the fruit to pick and pickle, I told her, which she could later devour with a slice of cheese and a glass of wine on a bench under the tree on a summer evening. When I visited recently it was pleasing to see the outcome of my suggestion: a lovely, shady olive tree, laden with olives, looking just the shot in her front garden. The olive tree (botanical name Olea europaea) originates in the Mediterranean and has been part of Mediterranean civilisation and culture since before recorded history. Olives have been grown, and the oil traded since the times of the Pharaohs, going back to at least 2000 BP. The ancient Greeks and then the Romans were all familiar with the cultivation of the olive tree and extraction of the oil. It was the Romans who invented the screw press which revolutionised the extraction of olive oil … a process that lasted up until the 20th century, when it was replaced (at least by more up-to-date producers) by the modern centrifuge.
To the early civilisations, the olive was a bountiful gift. As well as being used for cooking, it provided the fuel for oil lamps, was used in medicine, and embalming and was an excellent lubricant. I found out about its quality as a lubricant by accident one day when I needed some oil to get a rusty padlock going again, and rather than walk all the way back to the house for the tin of Household Oil, I took an olive from the crib and squeezed it into the lock. The mechanism was instantly freed up, and has needed no more treatment over the succeeding 20 years.
Olive trees also have beautiful, fine grained timber, which can be turned, and has for centuries been manufactured into furniture. The wood does not split on drying, and has three colours (the silvery bark, the creamy sapwood and yellow-brown heartwood). Here are salt and pepper shakers made from olive timber by my forestry mate Peter Lear:
Furthermore, in many Mediterranean and Aegean countries today, where the native forests are long gone, the prunings and dry twigs from the olive groves are the only source of firewood for cooking and heating.
Since early times, olives have spread all over the world, especially to places with a 'Mediterranean climate'. The climate in the Avon valley where I live is ideal: cool, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. These are the conditions in which olive trees thrive … and this explains why the Romans never succeeded in cultivating olives in Britain, nor did the first Europeans who settled in the north-east of the USA. The Spanish, however, had already begun by then to cultivate olives in what became California and is today the premier olive oil producing region of the USA.
A reconstructed Roman screw press used for extracting olive oil
I have planted many olive trees over the years. They require virtually no maintenance, other than light pruning, although if you are growing a commercial orchard in our climate, it will require irrigation. Without summer watering, an olive plantation in south-western Australia will usually only give a good crop of fruit every second year. Many years of observation has also revealed that in addition to being good-looking and fruitful, olive trees are drought-hardy, do not mind the odd winter frost and will survive a bushfire. What a tree!
However, the olive tree does have one imperfection: the freshly-picked fruit is inedible. This is because olives contain an extremely bitter compound called oleuropein. Although I have seen birds, especially ringneck (“28”) parrots, eating olives on the tree, and I have been told that emus eat them, I have never met a single human who has not instantly spat it out after the first sampling of a lovely-looking ripe, black olive. Luckily, some clever olive grower, or more likely his wife, whose name was never recorded, discovered thousands of years ago that oleuropein can be removed from olives by pickling the fruit in brine, or packing them in salt. There should be a statue to her somewhere: The Unknown Olive Pickler. As a result of olive cultivation and genetic improvement over the centuries, there are dozens of different varieties. Some have been bred for oil production, others for 'table olives', still others simply as garden ornamentals. If you are going to plant one, I tell people, check the variety before purchase and make sure it matches your expectations. I love olive oil, but I do not pretend to be a connoisseur. I did attend an olive oil tasting once, where there were about nineteen different oils in little bowls, and you dipped in a morsel of bread, and tasted the flavour and texture. I was a disappointment to the organiser: I liked all of them equally! Ellen and I use olive oil all the time in cooking and in bread and pastry-making, buying it in two-litre casks from one of my old forestry mates Ian Wildy, who is now a producer of superb extra virgin olive oil from the plantation on his Sherwood Springs property at Mumballup. And we eat olives almost daily, especially with a cracker and cheese, consumed with a nice glass of something, pre-dinner.
Sherwood Springs extra virgin olive oil, and the plantation from which it is produced
It was Ian, incidentally, who introduced me to the concept of olive oil as the “Third Pillar” of the perfect diet, as prescribed in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible. The other two pillars were said to be wine and grain. (I can only assume that the writers of the Book of Deuteronomy had not tasted single-malt Scotch).
And I thank Ian for educating me on the difference between “extra virgin” and “virgin” olive oil. According to Ian: “Extra virgin is the good stuff produced from freshly picked fruit and defined by a maximum content of free fatty acid. Virgin is second grade oil made from olives that are not processed for some time after picking, have oxidized or even started to ferment. Most of the cheaper oil in tins in the supermarkets is virgin but not extra virgin olive oil, and quite a lot of it is not even 100% olive oil”.
We have three olive trees on our property (planted in 1992, so they are 30 years old as I write), and periodically we collect a nice crop of black olives from them. These we pickle using a recipe given to Ellen by her old and late friend Marika. Marika grew up in a small rural village in Greece, before emigrating to Western Australia, and she had picked, pickled and eaten olives since she was a small child.
· Pick and wash the olives;
· Slit the both sides of each olive with a very sharp knife;
· Put the olives in a big basin and cover with clean, cold fresh water;
· Change the water every day for ten days;
· On the 11th day, empty off the water, wash the olives again, and return to basin;
· Cover the olives with cooking salt (three handfuls of salt to every kg of olives);
· Leave for three days;
· Strain off the brine (the salty olive juices), but do not rinse.
· Place olives into sterilised jars, and add water until jar is three-quarters full.
· Top up the jar with vinegar, a teaspoonful of olive oil, plus oregano and garlic to taste;
· Make sure the olives are completely covered by the liquid;
· Screw on the lids, and leave for at least one week before eating.
I know and periodically visit several superb olive trees growing in the Avon region of Western Australia. I was introduced to the champion of them all by my mate, Beverley farmer Trevor McLean. It grows in Lukin Street in Beverley in the front yard of an old house opposite the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The history of the house is unknown (at least to me), but I have heard it was originally a convent for nuns associated with the Church. The house looks as if it was built at about the same time as the church, making it nearly 85 years old at the time of writing .
The Lukin Street olive tree in Beverley
There are no surviving details about the planting of this olive tree. I think it is safe to assume it was planted soon after the house was built. In any case, it is one of the finest and largest I have ever seen. Trevor and I always used to nod "hello" to it as we drove past, on our way out to the tackle the salinity problems in the Yenyenning Lakes.
This tree has a girth of 6.7 metres, which compares favourably with some of the largest olive trees anywhere in the world. The height of the tree when I last measured it in 2017 was about 15 metres, but this is deceptive because clearly the tree has been pollarded ("topped and lopped") several times in the past, and the crown is regrowth.
At 85 years of age, this tree is still in its early childhood by olive tree standards. There is said to be an olive tree on the Island of Crete that is 3000 years old and there are trees in Italy that can be reliably dated back to Roman times, over 2000 years ago.
There are some surprising myths surrounding the Beverley olive tree. One story I was told was that it had been planted in 1830 by Ensign Dale on his second pioneering exploration in the Avon region, before the town of Beverley existed. This is clearly impossible. On that journey Dale only reached the spot where Beverley is today on his way home after he had journeyed east from Mt Bakewell (York) out to Mt Caroline and Mt Stirling, way beyond the present town of Quairading. I cannot imagine that he would have carried an olive seedling with him on this expedition, all the way from Perth, and then planted it randomly in the bush on the way home. Especially is this unlikely because it was mid-November when Dale reached the Avon River on his return journey, not the time for planting any sort of tree in this region. Olives can be grown from pips, of course, but only a pip from a freshly picked olive, not a pickled one from a jar. I also doubt Dale would have had a fresh pip with him, let alone a jar of pickled olives.
I suspect the true story is that the tree was planted by the first Priest of the Sacred Heart Church, and that he had probably acquired a seedling, or a cutting from New Norcia, where the Benedictines had long had a monastery and had cultivated olives. New Norcia had been founded by Spanish Benedictine monks, Rosendo Salvado and Joseph Benedict Serra, and Spain has long been the principal olive growing country of the world.
Despite the mystery of its origins, the Lukin Street olive tree in Beverley has a lesson for the unwary: the olive is a beautiful, tough and long-lived tree, and provides bountiful gifts in fruit and shade ... but it can also grow to an enormous size as you can see in the picture below. So, if you plant one in your urban garden, be prepared to do some pruning, maybe even a ruthless pollarding, every few years … for at least the next 85 years or so.