Most people choose their holidays on the basis of opposites. If it’s cold where they live, they opt for someplace warm. Flatlanders go skiing. Desert dwellers find the sea. Me, I let my stomach decide. What else can I do, when the foods I love call constantly from their homelands and invite me to dine? When we can, my stomach and I try to oblige.
This past summer, my husband and I chose Kalamata, the home of those luscious black olives from Greece. They’d been beckoning for years from the ring finger of Greece’s hand-shaped westerly island, the Peloponnese. Sure, we’d had imported kalamatas from the deli, but the time had come to eat them on their own turf. So when everyone else flocked to Athens to watch the Olympics, we flew to Kalamata to engage in a favorite sport of our own.
From London, it was only a two-and-a-half-hour flight. Over France and Germany, a quick dip over Austria, down the toe of Italy, and then the earth disappeared and a sheet of rippling sapphire replaced it. Eensy-weensy sailboats popped up here and there and then whoosh! We turned a hard right and there were mountains from a train set, covered with knobbly green felt.
And the olive trees! Just the sight of them made me salivate.
Not everyone drools, but nobody arrives in the Greek islands without noticing the olive groves. As we drove through the Taiyetos mountains to our home for the next two weeks, we were greeted by sheer cliffs and magnificent gorges, bushy outcrops of wild herbs, and thousands and thousands of olive trees.
Mythologically speaking, the olive came to Greece by way of the goddess Athena. In a contest with Poseidon to gain patronage of the capital city, the two deities competed to come up with the most original and useful gift. Poseidon cracked his staff against the rock of the Acropolis and salt water gushed out; Athena stamped her foot and an olive tree grew. The father of the gods knew a good thing when he saw it: Athena won; the city was named in her honor; and the olive tree has sustained Greece ever since.
Olea europaea var. sativa is thought to have grown originally in the Eastern Mediterranean around 3000 b.c. It has spread with abandon since then throughout the Mediterranean basin, thanks in part to the Romans, who planted it wherever they roamed.
The Greeks have cultivated the olive lovingly for thousands of years. A clay vase full of olives found at the Minoan palace of Zakros dates back to the 16th century b.c. Homer (circa 800 b.c.) called olive oil “liquid gold.” And Solon, (639-559 b.c.) the great lawmaker of Athens, made the uprooting or felling of an olive tree punishable by death. That may sound a bit harsh, but according to Solon, “The greatest of riches, the remedy for all life situations is the fruit of the olive tree.”
Remember, the Greeks relied daily on the olive for food. And they used the oil for everything from medical treatment to lighting the home. Solon might well say the same thing these days, but for different reasons: as we now know from several studies, centuries of eating olives and olive oil, in combination with vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits, has given the Greeks the healthiest hearts in the world.
But back to the star of this story. The kalamata is actually a variety of Olea europaea var. sativa called kalamon. The tree said to be the source for Greece’s best-loved olive is maintained by the Kalamata government in the hills near the city. Gnarled and knotty but still vigorous, the old stud stands as it has for the past 800 years, and it apparently could go on for several hundred years more.
The Kalamata region (also called Messinia) is home to 15 million olive trees comprising two main varieties: the granddaddy kalamata (the big purple-fruited “kalamon,”) and the small-leafed, small-fruited koroneiki, grown solely for its oil. Together, they produce more than 60,000 tons of olives per year, keep 300 oil mills on the Peloponnese going strong and employ 40,000 people.
Most of the olive groves on the Peloponnese are farmed organically. They are harvested from November to February, in a laborious process of pruning that, until recently, was all done by hand. Kalamatas ripen to purple on the tree, but the koroneiki remain green, giving the resulting oil a lovely deep-green color. Kalamatas are salted and left to stand for several months before being packed in olive oil and sold. Koroneiki are ground by granite stones and filtered via a hydraulic press, or separated by centrifugal force.
Since antiquity, olive oil has been mixed with herbs and used to perfume the body and hair of both men and women. Athletes used it to make their muscles look more impressive as they competed in the Olympiads. Olive wreaths (kotinos) were used to crown the victors as a symbol of the truce which was always held between warring factions during the games.
If peace prevailed on the battlefields, on the Olympic fields competition was fierce, not only to impress the gods, whom the Greeks were sure were watching, but to win a coveted prize: olive oil. The winner of the most important contest, the footrace, was paid the highest honor of all: 2.5 tons of olive oil to export and sell as he wished.
That’s a lot of olive oil. But then, Greeks do consume more of it than most people: these days, about 20 liters (676 ounces) per person per year. That’s twice the Spanish and Italian consumption. And the Peloponnese? They eat nearly twice the Greek average: a whopping 35 liters (1,183 ounces) per person per year. They’re no slouches when it comes to olive eating, either: even I might be hard-pressed to eat their reported consumption: 3 kg (6.6 pounds) a year.
I may give it a go though, now that I’ve learned (What? You thought I spent all my time on the beach? My time in Greece has been research, painstaking research!) that olives are packed with vitamin E and phenols, and contain only three to four calories a pop. They’re a tough snack to beat unless you’re watching your salt intake: by weight, olives are 2 percent salt.
No such sodium worries apply to olive oil, however, which is pressed from untreated olives. Extra-virgin olive oil, especially, conserves all of its vitamins, essential fatty acids and powerful antioxidants.
High in monounsaturated fatty acids (mainly oleac acid), olive oil has been shown to lower cholesterol and actually lower blood pressure, especially when it replaces other fats in the diet and is eaten along with a diet rich in veggies, fruits, legumes and grains and little meat.
OLIVE OIL PASTA KALAMATA
This lovely dish, created by Greek cookbook author Mirsini Lambraki, combines a hefty dose of olive oil and kalamatas.
1 large onion, chopped
8 ounces kalamata olives, pitted
13-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pasta
1 cup olive oil
Flat-leaved parsley, for garnish
Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and dry-fry onion for 3 to 6 minutes, turning constantly, until soft. Add olives. Cook for 10 minutes.
Add tomatoes, parsley, salt and pepper. Stir and cover. Keep at a simmer.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook al dente, according to package directions. Drain well and pour into a warm serving dish. Pour olive oil over pasta and mix well. Add sauce, toss well, garnish with parsley and serve.
I have to admit that my stomach and I, happy as clams in our taverna overlooking the sea, weren’t thinking of calories or cholesterol for a change. We just knew that homemade bread dipped in olive oil, preceded by a kalamata and followed by a sip of chilled, dry white wine, tasted grand. Best of all, we discovered that eating kalamatas in their homeland feels right and true, like finally remembering to say “yasas” instead of “hello” and getting a “yasas” in return. Speaking for the two of us, my appetite and me, I must say we highly recommend it.
Nancy Allison is a freelance writer currently living in England. She writes about food, gardens and travel for several United Kingdom and U.S. magazines.
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