EVER SINCE my colleagues and I decided to have a Mediterranean food promotion at the Encounters, (the Coffee Shop) we have been contemplating the special ingredients that would be required to do the same. The most important things that came to light were the use of olives and olive oil. In the next two weeks I will be talking about this widely used fruit. The olive tree has a long history behind it. Crete and Syria were the first countries to cultivate the Olea Europaea tree some 5000 years ago. It further expanded to Egypt, Lebanon, Iberia, Arabia, Greece, Italy, Spain and France. It was only during 1769 that the olive reached America. The word olive evolved from the Greek elaiwa to elia to maslina to olajbogyo to oliva and finally olive. Since it was first cultivated, the olive tree has been revered for its abundant fruit and its long life and capacity to thrive in adverse climates and conditions.

The olive tree is a stout, evergreen tree with long, slim, silver-green leaves on slender branches. A mature tree has a thick and twisted trunk and grows to heights between twelve to thirty feet. The olive tree grows slowly and usually does not bear any fruit till about 10 years. It is said that the olive tree can live up to over 500 years.

The olive fruit will grow to a shining black if left to ripen on the tree. Normally what one finds in the market are the green olives. They are young fruits which are picked up at the first stage before they ripen. The size of the olive depends on the type of the tree they are plucked from and not how early they are plucked. This young fruit, when plucked, is extremely bitter and unpalatable, and requires curing.

Olives and olive oil are used not just in the Mediterranean cuisine but also in most European preparations. Italian food and Spanish food are incomplete without olives and olive oil. Many French salad dressings are made with olive oil as it is the main cooking ingredient like groundnut oil in India. Olive oil is used in a variety of beauty and medicinal products. It is also used as a massage oil for babies.

The next week's article will feature the processing of olives and the various types.

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Executive Chef, Taj Krishna

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