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Jewish Recipes --> Jewish and Israeli Foods --> Olives

Olives are one of the oldest foods known to man, dating back some 8,000 years in the Mediterranean region. The olive tree was valued as a symbol of peace and happiness, while olives were used as food and a source of oil.

The Olive (Olea europaea) is a species of small tree in the family Oleaceae, native to coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean region, from Syria and the maritime parts of Asia Minor and northern Iran at the south end of the Caspian Sea. Its use as a major agricultural product in preclassical Greece led to its wider distribution throughout the western Mediterranean. Olive trees show a marked preference for calcareous soils, flourishing best on limestone slopes and crags, and coastal climate conditions.

The Wild Olive is a small, straggly tree or shrub to 8-15 m tall with thorny branches. The leaves are opposite, oblong pointed, 4-10 cm long and 1-3 cm broad, dark greyish-green above and pale with whitish scales below. The small white flowers, with four-cleft calyx and corolla, two stamens and bifid stigma, are borne generally on the last year's wood, in racemes springing from the axils of the leaves. The fruit is a small drupe 1-2 cm long, thinner-fleshed and smaller in wild plants than in orchard cultivars.

Olive oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the Olive tree (Olea europaea L.), a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin.


The olive tree is an evergreen tree or shrub native to the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa. It is short and squat, and rarely exceeds 8–15 meters (26–49 ft) in height. The silvery green leaves are oblong in shape, measuring 4–10 centimetres (1.6–3.9 in) long and 1–3 centimeters (0.39–1.2 in) wide. The trunk is typically gnarled and twisted.

The small white flowers, with ten-cleft calyx and corolla, two stamens and bifid stigma, are borne generally on the last year's wood, in racemes springing from the axils of the leaves.

The fruit is a small drupe 1–2.5 centimeters (0.39–0.98 in) long, thinner-fleshed and smaller in wild plants than in orchard cultivars. Olives are harvested in the green to purple stage. Canned black olives may contain chemicals (usually ferrous sulfate) that turn them black artificially.

also see: Olive oil

Olives and olive oil

The olive is one of the biblical Seven Species and one of the three elements of the “Mediterranean triad” in Israelite cuisine. Olive oil was used for not only as food and for cooking, but also for lighting, sacrificial offerings, ointment, and anointment for priestly or royal office.

Olives were one of ancient Israel’s most important natural resources

The olive tree was well suited to the climate and soil of the Israelite highlands and a significant part of the hill country was allocated to the cultivation of olive trees, which were one of ancient Israel’s most important natural resources.[34] Olive oil was more versatile and longer-lasting than the oil from other plants, such as sesame, and was also considered to be the best-tasting.

Although olives were used to produce oil from the Bronze Age, it was only by the Roman period that the techniques were introduced to cure olives in lye and then brine to remove their natural bitterness and make them edible as a food.[39][40]

Olives were harvested in the late summer and were processed for oil by crushing the olives, pressing the mash and separating the oil from the flesh. In the early Iron Age period, this was done by treading the olives in basins cut into rock, or with a mortar or stone on a flat slab. In the later Iron Age period, the introduction of the beam press made large scale processing possible.

The discovery of many ancient olive presses in various locations indicates that olive oil production was highly developed in ancient Israel. The oil production center dating from the 7th century BCE discovered at Ekron, a Philistine city, has over one hundred large olive oil presses, and is the most complete olive oil production center from ancient times to be discovered. It indicates that ancient Israel was a major producer of olive oil for its residents as well as for other parts of the ancient Near East, such as Egypt and especially Mesopotamia.[26][38] In addition to the large-scale olive oil production for commerce and export, presses have been found in ordinary houses, indicating that this was also a cottage industry.

Archaeological remains at Masada and other sites indicate that the most common olive cultivar was the indigenous Nabali, followed by the Souri. In Roman times, other olive cultivars were imported from Syria and Egypt.[40]

There is also some written information about olive oil. The Bible describes its use in relation to certain sacrifices in which olive oil is used (for example, (Leviticus 6:13-14, Leviticus 7:9-12). However, these sacrificial “recipes” can be assumed to represent some of the everyday uses of oil and methods for cooking and frying.[26] Olive oil was mixed with flour to make bread in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:12-13) and is also noted as a valuable product for eating (Ezekiel 16:13,19). Olive oil is also mentioned on the Samaria and Arad ostraca.[38]

The consumption of olive oil varied with social class – it was less available to the poor, but it may have become more available later in the Israelite period as the means of production improved and became more widespread. By early Roman times, the Mishna indicates that it was one of the four essential foods that a husband had to provide his wife, and it has been calculated that at a minimum, this represented about 11 percent of the overall calories supplied by the “food basket” described at that time.


It is the combination of these three health-boosting compounds that make olives:

  • Have a protective effect on cells that can lower the risk of damage and inflammation
  • Help reduce the severity of asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Help prevent heart disease
  • Help prevent colon cancer
  • Help prevent the frequency and intensity of hot flashes in women going though menopause.


It is not known exactly when the wild olive passed under the care of the husbandman and became the fruitful garden olive. The frequent references in the Bible to the plant and its produce, its implied abundance in the land of Canaan, and the important place it has always held in the economy of the inhabitants of Syria, lead us to consider that country the birthplace of the cultivated olive. An improved variety, possessed at first by some small Semitic sect, it was probably slowly distributed to adjacent tribes; and, yielding profusely, with little labor, that oily matter so essential to healthy life in the dry hot climates of the East, the gift of the fruitful tree became in that primitive age a symbol of peace and goodwill among the warlike barbarians. At a later period, with the development of maritime enterprise, the oil was conveyed, as an article of trade, to the neighboring Pelagic and Ionian nations, and the plant, doubtless, soon followed.

In the Homeric world, as depicted in the Iliad, olive oil is known only as a luxury of the wealthy--an exotic product, prized chiefly for its value in the heroic toilet; the warriors anoint themselves with it after the bath, and the body of Patroclus is similarly sprinkled; but no mention of the culture of the plant is made, nor does it find any place on the Achillean shield, on which a vineyard is represented. But, although no reference to the cultivation of the olive occurs in the Iliad, the presence of the tree in the garden of Alcinous and other familiar allusions show it to have been known when the Odyssey was written. Whenever the introduction may have taken place, all tradition points to the limestone hills of Attica as the seat of its first cultivation on the Hellenic peninsula. When Poseidon and Athena contended for the future city, an olive sprang from the barren rock at the bidding of the goddess, the patron of those arts that were to bring undying influence to the rising state. That this myth has some relation to the first planting of the olive in Greece seems certain from the remarkable story told by Herodotus of the Epidaurians, who, on their crops failing, applied for counsel to the Delphic oracle, and were enjoined to erect statues to Damia and Auxesia (symbols of fertility) carved from the wood of the true garden olive, then possessed only by the Athenians, who granted their request for a tree on condition of their making an annual sacrifice to Athena, its patron; they thus obeyed the command of the Pythian, and their lands became again fertile. The sacred tree of the goddess long stood on the Acropolis, and, though destroyed in the Persian invasion, sprouted again from the root--some suckers of which were said to have produced those olive trees of the Academy in an after age no less revered.

By the time of Solon the olive had so spread that he found it necessary to enact laws to regulate the cultivation of the tree in Attica, from which country it was probably distributed gradually to all the Athenian allies and tributary states. To the Ionian coast, where it abounded in the time of Thales, it may have been in an earlier age brought by Phoenician vessels; some of the Sporades may have received it from the same source; the olives of Rhodes and Crete had perhaps a similar origin. Samos, if we may judge from the epithet of Aeschylus, must have had the fruitful plant long before the Persian Wars.

Yielding a grateful substitute for the butter and animal fats consumed by the races of the north, the olive, among the southern nations of antiquity, became an emblem not only of peace but of national wealth and domestic plenty; the branches borne in the Panathenaea, the wild olive spray of the Olympic victor, the olive crown of the Roman conqueror at ovation, and those of the equites at their imperial review alike typified gifts of peace that, in a barbarous age, could be secured by victory alone. Among the Greeks the oil was valued as an important article of diet, as well as for its external use. The Roman people employed it largely in food and cookery--the wealthy as an indispensable adjunct to the toilet; and in the luxurious days of the later empire it became a favorite axiom that long and pleasant life depended on two fluids, wine within and oil without. Pliny vaguely describes fifteen varieties of olive cultivated in his day, that called the Licinian being held in most esteem, and the oil obtained from it at Venafrum in Campania the finest known to Roman connoisseurs; the produce of Istria and Baetica was regarded as second only to that of the Italian peninsula.

The gourmet of the empire valued the unripe fruit, steeped in brine, as a provocative to the palate, no less than his modern representative; and pickled olives, retaining their characteristic flavor, have been found among the buried stores of Pompeii. The bitter juice or refuse deposited during expression of the oil (called amurca), and the astringent leaves of the tree have many virtues attributed to them by ancient authors. The oil of the bitter wild olive was employed by the Roman physicians in medicine, but does not appear ever to have been used as food or in the culinary art.

In modern times the olive has been spread widely over the world; and, though the Mediterranean lands that were its ancient home still yield the chief supply of the oil, the tree is now cultivated successfully in many regions unknown to its early distributors. Protected by high brick walls, a fruiting olive tree is in the Chelsea Physic Garden, London. Soon after the discovery of the Americas it was conveyed thither by the Spanish settlers. In Chile it flourishes as luxuriantly as in its native land, the trunk sometimes becoming of large girth, while oil of fair quality is yielded by the fruit. To Peru it was carried at a later date, but has not there been equally successful. Introduced into Mexico by the Jesuit missionaries of the 17th century, it was planted by similar agency in Upper California, where it stagnated under the careless management of the Anglo-Saxon conqueror. Olive cultivation has also been attempted in the south-eastern states, especially in South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. In the eastern hemisphere the olive has been established in many inland districts which would have been anciently considered ill-adapted for its culture. To Armenia and Persia it was known at a comparatively early period of history, and many olive-yards now exist in Upper Egypt. The tree has been introduced into Chinese agriculture, and has become an important addition to the resources of the Australian planter. In Queensland the olive has found a climate specially suited to its wants; in South Australia, near Adelaide, it also grows vigorously; and there are probably few coast districts of the vast island continent where the tree would not flourish. It has likewise been successfully introduced into some parts of Cape Colony.

The olive is used in different culinary disciplines: In mixed drinks it is the famous garnish of the martini; in sausages, it may be used in mortadella and so on. It is commonly used in breads as well.

Cultivation of the olive is a key characteristic of Mediterranean mixed farming, and played a large part in the economic development of ancient Greece because of the suitability of olive oil as an export crop. For instance Attica, the region of Athens, was a grain importer and olive oil exporter from early historic times. The Athenian pottery industry was stimulated largely by the demand for containers in which to export olive oil.

Note also that the green olive and black olive are the same plant; green olives are pickled before ripened, where black olives are pickled after being ripened.

Cultivation and uses

For more details on this topic, see olive (fruit).

The Olive has been used since ancient times for the making of olive oil and for eating of the fruit, which, being bitter in its natural state, are typically subjected to fermentation or cured with lye or brine to be made more palatable.

It is not known when olives were first cultivated for harvest. Among the earliest evidence for the domestication of olives comes from the Chalcolithic Period archaeological site of Teleilat Ghassul in what is today modern Jordan.

The plant and its products are frequently referred to in the Bible and by the earliest poets. The ancient agriculturists believed that the Olive would not succeed if planted more than a short distance from the sea; Theophrastus gives 300 stadia (55.6 km) as the limit). Modern experience does not always confirm this, and, though showing a preference for the coast, it has long been grown further inland in some areas with suitable climates, particularly in the southwestern Mediterranean (Iberia, northwest Africa) where winters are less severe.

Olives are now cultivated in many regions of the world such as Australia, New Zealand, and California. Considerable research has been done to support the health benefits of eating olives and olive oil (see external links below for research results).


There are thousands of cultivars of the Olive. In Italy alone at least three hundred cultivars have been enumerated, but only a few are grown to a large extent. The main Italian cultivars are 'Leccino', 'Frantoio' and 'Carolea'. None of these can be safely identified with ancient descriptions, though it is not unlikely that some of the narrow-leaved cultivars that are most esteemed may be descendants of the Licinian olive. The broad-leaved olive trees of Portugal and Spain bear a larger fruit, but the edible portion (the drupe) has a more bitter flavour and the oil is of poorer quality. These Iberian olives are usually cured and eaten, often after being pitted, stuffed (with pickled pimento, onion, or other garnishes) and jarred in fresh brine.

Since many cultivars are self sterile or nearly so, they are generally planted in pairs with a single primary cultivar and a secondary cultivar selected for its ability to fertilize the primary one, for example, 'Frantoio' and 'Leccino'. In recent times, efforts have been directed at producing hybrid cultivars with qualities such as resistance to disease, quick growth and larger or more consistent crops.

Some particularly important cultivars of olive include:

  • 'Frantoio' and 'Leccino'. These cultivars are the principal participants in Italian olive oils from Tuscany. Leccino has a mild sweet flavour while Frantoio is fruity with a stronger aftertaste. Due to their highly valued flavour, these cultivars have been migrated and are now grown in other countries.
  • 'Arbequina' is a small, brown olive grown in Catalonia, Spain. As well as being used as a table olive, its oil is highly valued.
  • 'Empeltre' is a medium sized, black olive grown in Spain. They are used both as a table olive and to produce a high quality olive oil.
  • 'Kalamata' is a big size, black olive, named after the city of Kalamata, Greece, used as a table olive.
  • 'Koroneiki' originates from the southern Peloponese, around Kalamata and Mani in Greece. This small olive, though difficult to cultivate, has a high oil yield and produces oil of exceptional quality.
  • 'Picholine' originated in the south of France. It is green, medium size, and elongated. Their flavor is mild and nutty.
  • 'Lucques' originated in the south of France. They are green, of a large size, and elongated. The bone has an arcuated shape. Their flavour is mild and nutty.
  • 'Souri' originated in Lebanon and is widespread in Israel and neighboring countries. It has a high oil yield and exceptionally aromatic flavour.
  • 'Barnea' is a modern cultivar bred in Israel to be disease resistant and to produce a generous crop. It is used both for oil and for table olives. The oil has a strong flavor with a hint of green leaf. Barnea is widely grown in Israel and in the southern hemisphere, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.
  • 'Maalot' is another modern, disease-resistant, Israeli cultivar derived from the North African 'Chemlali' cultivar. The olive is medium sized, round, has a fruity flavor and can be used for oil or for table olives.

Growth and propagation

The olive tree grows very slowly, but over many years the trunk can attain a considerable diameter. Augustin Pyrame de Candolle recorded one exceeding 10 m in girth. Some Italian olive trees have been credited with an antiquity reaching back to the Roman empire such as the Linza olive plants cited before bishop Ludovico de Pennis' pastorale visit to Alliste on 11 May 1452; but the age of such ancient trees is always doubtful during growth, and their identity with old descriptions still more difficult to establish. Trees rarely exceed 15 m in height, and are generally confined to much more limited dimensions by frequent pruning. The wood, of a yellow or light greenish-brown hue, is often finely veined with a darker tint, and, being very hard and close-grained, is valued by the cabinetmaker and ornament turner.

The olive is propagated in various ways, but cuttings or layers are generally preferred; the tree roots easily in favourable soil and throws up suckers from the stump when cut down. Branches of various thickness are cut into lengths of about 1 m and planted deeply in manured ground, soon vegetate; shorter pieces are sometimes laid horizontally in shallow trenches, when, covered with a few centimetres of soil, they rapidly throw up sucker-like shoots. In Greece, grafting the cultivated tree on the wild form is a common practice. In Italy, embryonic buds, which form small swellings on the stems, are carefully excised and planted beneath the surface, where they grow readily, their buds soon forming a vigorous shoot.

Occasionally the larger boughs are marched, and young trees thus soon obtained. The olive is also sometimes raised from seed, the oily pericarp being first softened by slight rotting, or soaking in hot water or in an alkaline solution, to facilitate germination.

Where the olive is carefully cultivated, as in Languedoc and Provence, the trees are regularly pruned. The pruning preserves the flower-bearing shoots of the preceding year, while keeping the tree low enough to allow the easy gathering of the fruit. The spaces between the trees are regularly fertilized. The crop from old trees is sometimes enormous, but they seldom bear well two years in succession, and in many instances a large harvest can only be reckoned upon every sixth or seventh season.

A calcareous soil, however dry or poor, seems best adapted to its healthy development, though the tree will grow in any light soil, and even on clay if well drained; but, as remarked by Pliny, the plant is more liable to disease on rich soils, and the oil is inferior to the produce of the poorer and more rocky ground.

Fruit harvest and processing

Most olives today are harvested by shaking the boughs or the whole tree. Lax practices such as using olives lying on the ground can result in poor quality oil. In southern Europe the olive harvest is in the winter months, continuing for several weeks, but the time varies in each country, and also with the season and the kinds cultivated.

The amount of oil contained in the fruit differs much in the various sorts; the pericarp usually yields from 60 to 70%.

Beldi: A small, fruity olive from Morocco.

Halkidiki: A tangy green olive from Greece's Halkidiki peninsula.

Gaeta: A small, salty Italian olive.

Cerignola: A very meaty, giant green olive harvested in Cerignola, Italy.

Bitetto: A sweeter olive from southern Italy.

Sept 2005 - 2013 - Kosher Recipes - Kosher Cooking - Jewish Cooking - Jewish Recipes - Jewish Foods- Jewish Foods
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Bagels.