by Oded Schwartz
Lately the olive is having a comeback and olive oil is a must in every modern kitchen. The Galilean hills are being covered again with the new, dwarfed stock olive groves. Yet amongst them, on the inhospitable, barren hills one can still see the remnants of old olive trees that once dominated the landscape; merging with the stony terrain those magnificent old gentlemen, with their tortured trunks and spread branches stand, in mute splendor, bearing witness to human history's unfolding. Although the olive (Olea europaea), is native of Asia Minor where it was cultivated since Neolithic times, it quickly spread all over the Middle East & the Mediterranean region and together with the vine, shaped much of the culture, commerce and cuisine of those regions.
There are many mentions of olive tree and olive oil in the Bible; the tree and its leaves - the symbol of peace are imbedded in the Biblical poetic language (Psalms 128, 3) and were venerated (Judges 9, 8-16). King Solomon paid with olive oil for the cedar wood used for the building of the temple (Kings1, 5, 25). Yet, there is no reference to eating olives. We can assume from observing the food of other regional cultures that the olives together with bread, dry cheese and vinegar were the mainstay diet of the poor shepherds and field hands. In the list of ingredients that have been used at the court of King Solomon (Kings 1, 5, 2-3) olives were not mentioned.
For the poor peasant, cured and sun-dried olives were a gift from heaven. They are nutritious, relatively high in fat and rich in minerals. In addition their sharp salty flavor helps to enjoy an otherwise bland monotonous diet of bread and grains. The Talmud indicates that olives were served with radishes to help counteract the sharp taste of the radish (Babylonian Talmud Brachot, Folio 41a).
The situation changed after the return from the Babylonian Diaspora. With the advance of the Mishna and Talmudic period the reference to olive eating increased. Curiously, the Mishna tells us that ripe, fresh olives were eaten dipped in salt (Mea'srot 4: 3). The olives were bruised by hand - between the thumb and forefinger or with a stone and dipped in salt to lessen the bitterness of the olive. This way of eating fresh olive was quite common - bruising for immediate consumption is not considered as work and is permitted on the Sabbath (Shabbat 50a). To our palate it seems strange, but some of the ancient olives (including the Palestinian balady) produce fruit which although bitter, leaves a pleasant, sweet after taste; dipped in salt it is delicious.
Although the Talmud lists olives amongst the ten things that are bad for memory (among the others are: drinking water previously touched by cat or dog, eating animal hearts, placing one foot over the other when washing it and passing between two woman) references to olives and olive eating are numerous.
It is interesting to note that during the Talmudic era, food and eating habits changed drastically. The Jewish aristocracy was exposed to foreign cultures and also adopted their food and table manners. The attitude of the Greeks and later the Romans to eating olives was curious. Olives were not considered food but OPSA - a flavor giver. Although the peasantry consumed olives as an important staple the aristocracy treated them as luxury - something to nibble with the wine, before and after the meal - wine was never drunk during the meal. In a curious discussion about which food is blessed over the other the Talmudic scholars also mention a class of food which they called 'salted food' - maliach, which is eaten to enhance the sweetness of fruit (Brachot 6: 7). The 'salted food' is not specified. According to the Scholars, maliach, which in Modern Hebrew refers to salted fish, can also be salted cheese, olives or any other salty (pickled) dish that adds flavor to the otherwise bland bread.
The second century historian Ateanaus lists 56 ways of preparing olives. Apicius Roman Cookery - a curious collection of ancient Roman and Greek recipes, (probably first published in the 9th century), gives a recipe that outlines how 'preserving green olives so as to make oil at any time you wish'. The book also mentions olives cooked with leeks used for stuffing birds and served together with pounded Jericho dates, rue, cumin, pepper, thyme and asafoetida as a sauce for boiled chicken.
Olive eating was also a part of the bathhouse culture; together with hard-boiled eggs they were sold at the Hamam to promote drinking. Drinking large quantity of water was a part of the cleansing process. The Talmud mentions two kinds of olives served at the bath gluskaoth hmegulgalin, probably olives softened in vinegar and zetay shluchin - olives softened in wine (Avoda Zarah 2:7). The olive connection with the Bath House is not only culinary - olive oil was used as a softening and cleaning agent.
Curiously the Talmud does not mention at what stage of maturity olives for eating were picked but the assumption is that olives were eaten when they are ripe and have turned black. The best quality olives were salted - probably in baskets and spread over the roof to dry in the sun (Taharot chapter 9: 6). It is difficult to decipher the exact way olives were finished after being salted and dried. As mentioned above olives were preserved in wine or vinegar - Zatai Kevesh (Trumot 2) were considered inferior; salted, dried olives were also preserved in olive oil. As well as dry salting, olives were also preserved in brine in this case olive leaves and pegam (rue) were added to fflavor the olives (Babylonian Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 106a) Indeed olive preserving became such a speciality that Pliny, in his book Natural History relates that special olives from Trans Jordan and Beit Shan were imported to the Roman markets.
Inferior soft and misshapen olives were turned into olive cake. The olives were salted and buried in the ground until they turned into a mushy pulp. The stones were then removed and the pulp was pressed into round cakes and dried in the sun. To be eaten, the cakes were softened in vinegar (Babylonian Abodah Zarah 40b)
Many of these recipes still hold today. Curing olives is basic, simple and easy and the possibilities of dressing olives are numerous. Olive harvest is just around the corner get some and recreate what is probably one of the oldest recipes in the world.
About the Author
Oded's first book 'In Search Of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992)was short-listed for the British Andre' Simon award and won a special mention in the international "LengheCeretto Prize" for food and wine culture. He now lives in Cape Town and contributes occasionally to Al'Hashulchan (a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching and writing about the history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.