Olive oil is one of those ingredients that I would have to include in my pantry if, for some reason, I was forced to pick just 50 food items that I could store and eat for the rest of my life. And despite having consumed endless gallons of the stuff, from the finest freshly pressed and cloudy extra-virgin oils to the yuckiest supermarket quality “pure” oils, I have only been up close to an olive tree some 3-4 times in my life. So during our recent trip to Greece, I made certain that I got good and close to an olive tree, and took photographs as well. Olive trees where everywhere in Athens, with an ancient one on the acropolis, said to be more than a 1,000 years old. Olive trees are native to the eastern mediterranean region and they thrive in very dry and hot and otherwise considered “harsh-ish” conditions. Spain, Italy and Greece are among the largest producers of olives/olive oil, though many Greeks scoff at the success of Italian marketers who sell so much olive oil to global markets, but a substantial amount of their raw material was actually grown, processed and purchased in Greece…


Olive trees flower and bear fruit in May/June and the slow maturing fruit take another 4-6 months before they are at the ideal stage for making olive oil. I was lucky enough to spot a tree with the flowers and young fruit visible on a low branch. Also on the same tree, a more mature green olive several weeks older. By the Fall, these olives would still be green but much plumper and contain up to a third of their weight in precious oil. The first pressing is always referred to “virgin” olive oil, AS LONG AS IT is not processed in any way, heated, etc and contains less than 2% “free fatty acids”. In other words, all natural, minimal tinkering. “Extra-virgin” refers to “virgin” olive oil which has an acidity level of 0.8% or lower, according to Harold Mcgee and Alan Davidson. It is typically quite green and sometimes slightly bitter but incredibly flavorful. The tinge of green comes from the fact that the olives are still green in color at the time the oil is extracted, though it is theoretically possible to have a low acidity oil from riper olives, and the color would be more golden…


I chanced upon a fairly healthy, and perhaps 40-50 year old olive tree on one of our walks around Athens, near the Acropolis, and snapped the top 3 photos here at the same tree. I was just amazed to see the flowers and young fruit so close up. Walking down from the Acropolis to the Plaka district, there were several hundred olive trees just by the walking paths and I noticed that one of them had these tiny black olives on them, which seemed somewhat odd for that time of year. I had been told that all olives start out green, mature slowly, plump up and around late fall they start collecting them for oil. The ones which are left on the tree then continue to ripen and turn dark purple and almost black and many of these are processed for eating (after brining, curing, etc.). So seeing a nearly black bunch of olives in May was really curious… until I surmised that these must have been a few old unpicked olives from a few months before, that never fell off the tree and were just waiting for Marketman to come take a photo of them… :)


I was never really fond of olives by themselves as a child and young adult. It is only in the past ten years that I have truly appreciated the complex and salty flavors that coat your tongue and mouth when you taste a wonderfully cured olive. There are so many varieties and methods of curing them that I suspect I have tasted less than 1% of all the different olives for eating! If you anted an immediate salt attack, just head to the Athens Central Market and taste 10-15 different olives from the vendors and you will feel your blood pressure rising within minutes… But our most unusual olive find of the trip? A bottle of olives stewed/preserved in sugar… a sweet olive… based on an old recipe from one small town outside Athens. It was really unique and very delicious. We brought back a bottle of that!


24 Responses

  1. I was never also fond of olives as a child and I was “forced” to eat it by my father and mother. But now I thank them for instilling in me my love for olives as I truly enjoy eating it.=)

    I like the last picture of the olives on the tree.=)

    Good day! Market Man=)

  2. I hate olives, but I love olive oil. Olive oil to dip bread in, for salad dressing, to add moisture and flavor to ground meat, to baste vegetables for grilling…

    I do almost all of my cooking with extra virgin olive oil, except for when I need an oil with a very high smoke point, or with totally neutral flavors.

    Olive oil: Tastes great, and is good for you! (How’s that for a cheesy marketing slogan? LOL)

  3. an olive oil tip from a fellow olive oil lover: store your oil in the fridge to protect from light and heat, it will harden a little but just take it out a few minutes before cooking/use and it will liquefy shortly, also purchase the smallest bottle available to preserve freshness

  4. Here in Australia, the olive tree industry is beginning to take off, as our harsh climes suit the tree. In fact I have a 30- year old olive tree in my back yard, though I dont harvest the olives, as they require processing in brine to become edible, but green olives are actually sold in bulk at green grocers to traditional European families who prefer doing things the old way. Aside from shade, the tree is useful for branches to flavour my barbeques. There has been some research by ophthalmologists in Australia that incriminates most vegetable oils in macular degeneration of the elderly, as such oils apparently can accumulate behind the retina. However they have recommended olive oil for frying, and we use it exclusively in our household, except when certain dishes require butter.

  5. As for that sweet olive preserve, I remember as a child eating a version of champuy (sweet salty) from chinese olives. I occasionally still see it in chinese groceries in Sydney.

  6. I have never tasted sweet olives before so I’ll try to find it the next time I go to the market,sounds interesting!
    Evoo drizzled over pasta just before serving makes it extra special.It’s also my favourite salad dressing with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice,S&P, and mashed anchovies.Yum!

  7. First and foremost, Olé España!

    One of my oldest standbys is Simca’s estoufade de trois viande that calls for adding fresh green olives as finishing touch. I learned to exclude the olives in my second and subsequent iterations because I found them not just bitter but even execrably acrid, no relation at all to the various processed olives that I know and love.

  8. What struck me most when I first saw a real olive tree was its silvery grey-colored leaves and how humble it looked because its topmost branches stooped after reaching a certain height. Is this natural growth or a result of pruning? Must be one of the reasons why the olive tree has such rich symbolism even in the Bible. I also love those richly colored fabrics with olive designs highly popular in Provence. If we Filipinos have the coconut tree, then they have the olive tree.

  9. It might be selective breeding for easier harvests, or it might be the species of olive, but the tree in my backyard just grows up and up forever.

  10. Apicio I wondered about a recipe that calls for fresh olives as olives have an alkaloid making them unpalatable to foraging animals since they dont require animals to pollinate (they are wind pollinated), and the bitter flavors are a self defence, that man has overcome by brine storage and fermentation in Spain
    and sodium Hydoxide neutralization in France, US and elsewhere.
    Howver the variety common is France is the Picholine which is noted for being milder, sweeter and fruitier than other varieties. So perhaps the recipe does work if you use French olives. This shows the danger of extrapolating ingredients from one region to another.

  11. @ MarketFan: I agree about olive trees. They are so beautiful, especially just before dusk when there’s a light breeze. The leaves swaying in the wind seem to change colors from green to silver and back to green again. If you’re in the middle of an olive grove the leaves’ effect on the light is almost magical.

  12. quiapo, that’s an interesting finding by the australian opthalmologists. that would be a good information for my husband.

  13. Thelma If you google “macular degeneration vegetable oil” you should get a few references, particularly by Dr Paul Beaumont who is into Macular Degeration research here. Then if you go into the “scholar” section, you will get a reference in an ophthalmology journal in 2001 warning about vegetable oils. I think it should concern everyone, not just your husband, if we intend to live to a ripe old age. My own father, who is 91, has ony used olive oil for some time now, and I tell all I can.

  14. quiapo, i am taking note of all the informations that you are providing me and i could relay them to our patients. thank you very much.

  15. I love all kinds of olives i’ve tried but i’m partial to munching on the black ones. Less salty. Have also tried the champuy version when i saw them in Macau. MM, I must say, that last picture of you angled to the side certainly doesn’t show whatever weight you say you have gained! I will adopt that angled technique next time i’m in a picture. =)

  16. Did not even cross my mind until Quiapo pointed out that the Provençal stew might have been asking for their milder picholine for which I substitued kalamata. I once witnessed a Spanish lady boinking pickling olives with a mallet which reminded me of when we were kids picking up wind-fallen cracked green mangoes for buro.

  17. Thelma: also look at: “clin.Ex.Optom. 2005:88;5: 267-268”
    A good overview of macular degeneration and diet is in the Canadian Journal of Optometry Sept 2005 vol 67 no 5, which explain the science of it in clear easy to understand language for the layperson, and may provide useful copies for patients.

  18. thanks again, quiapo. i shall make copies of that article to give to each of our valuable patients, aside from the ones that i give them. dacal salamat!

  19. How about frying your artichoke in extra virgin olive oil. It’s worth every penny. Enjoy!

  20. If you have a source of fresh (uncured) olives, for heaven’s sake don’t let them go to waste! Curing is very easy–soak in strong brine which you change a couple of times until the bitterness is leached out. Then pack in salt for salt-cured olives, air-dry (in a low humidity climate) and roll in a bit of olive oil for a drier texture, or simply store in fresh brine to which you can add your choice of herbs. I used to cure my own olives when I lived in California and miss that terribly!

    For an easy (and utterly delicious) meal, try oven-braising a rabbit or chicken with sweet onions, a generous handful of both green and black olives, and a whole chile pod or two; use dry vermouth (undiluted) as your braising liquid. Braise slowly at a moderate temperature until the meat is meltingly tender. The olives’ herbal bite and onions’ sweetness is reflected in the vermouth. Lovely with fresh egg noodles or a nice crusty loaf.

  21. Hello MM and Homebuddy: Sweet Olives…indeed a MUST TRY!!! You can use Kalamata or a mixture of Kalamata, Green or Picholine..the Cerignola are way too big for this concoction, I think but feel free to use them if you want. I use KALAMATA and Green ones. Make a LEMON INFUSED SIMPLE SYRUP first (use the rind and lemon slices). Let it cool and store overnight to get maximum flavour. Then next day, drain the olives and rinse under cold running water. Blanch them three to five times in boiling water….just to get rid of that saltiness. Then drain them, put in a pot and add your lemon infused simple syrup. Let it come to a boil and let it cool in the syrup. Pack them into jars. …MM, if you want to try this and have leftover Kalamansi marmalade, it would make a terrific add-on to the Sweet Olives concoction and the pureed ones as well…

    Now, my family doesn’t like the PITS…so I take out the pit of each olive…give them the same treatment as the ones above …I add an apple – lemon marmalade(to add sweetness and pectin) and boil everything till mushy. Then puree….YOU ARE IN OLIVE HEAVEN when you try this, HOMEBUDDY!

  22. I’ve been married to an Italian and been living here in Italy for almost 10 years now,and considered myself a foodie,every November we travel to the nearby outskirt town of Verona, and there they celebrate olive oil festival. They normally show how a they process the olives from the fruit to oil. Olives are picked from the tree by hand or sometimes they use wooden pole to shake it off from the trees and they use nets to catch the olives to prevent it from from falling into the ground, then they immediately hauled it into a tractor to be brought to the mill. The mill itself is made of 2 huge circular boulders, that goes around in circle, so the olives are turned into a mushy paste, then they spread it on a flat sieve and press it, and the end result is a fruity complex delicious olive oil, so good with bruschetta! Another thing, did you know that olives grown around lake garda here in verona has the fruitiest taste amongst all olive oil. Did you ever try using it as a condiment for your steak with balsamic vinegar? Oh heaven..

  23. Where can you buy them? We don’t grow olives in South Dakota. Who will ship fresh uncured black olives?



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