O is for Olives



Olives have a long and ancient history.Legend has it that Athena and Poseidon were bickering over who owned Athens. [You can probably guess how this story ends, given the name of the city ;-)] Poseidon,the god of the sea, stuck his trident into the Acropolis and a salt water spring gushed forth. Cool! and a hard act to follow…

olive tree athena

…Next up? Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, who planted the first olive tree on the Acropolis, next to the well.

olive tree acropolis

The rest of the gods voted [Zeus was the Simon Cowell of the times] and judged that Athena won possession of the city, because her gift was the most useful.

And they were right! The ancient Mediterranean fruit and its oil have been valuable to civilizations for millennia, providing food, light, cosmetics, and health benefits. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, all considered the olive sacred.

Olive oil was used for cooking and lighting,  anointed athletes, royalty, and priests, and was burned as the eternal flame for the original Olympic games.

olympic flame

Olive wreaths were awarded to crown the victors in competitions, and olive branches were offered as symbols of peace.

wreath picasso peace

Originally a Mediterranean tree, the Spanish explorers brought the olive to the new world, and olive cultivation now flourishes around the world wherever the climate is similar to the Mediterranean.

olives growing olives greece [198x238]

The technique hasn’t varied much — knock the olives off the branches, let them dry in the sun.

olive harvest old [274x112] olive harvest now [208x112]

And then eat!

Fried olives are a tasty treat, and fun for parties — there are a lot of recipes out there — this one uses green olives stuffed with provolone cheese, so after frying there are 3 levels of texture and flavor in one bite: the crunch of the exterior, the meaty olive interior, and then the melty cheese core. Yum. 😉

olives fried [196x143]

Baked olives are an old Italian tradition, and simple to prepare — here’s one version (from Williams-Sonoma):

baked olives wm-sonoma [196x180]

  • Combine in a bowl 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 2 rosemary sprigs, the zest of 1 orange, cut into long thin strips, and 1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes.
  • Toss with about 3 cups of assorted black and green olives.
  • Transfer to a small baking dish and bake at 400 until the olives are warmed through, about 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Orzo with feta and olives is a simple and satisfying dish:

olives orzo feta [194x126]

  • Prepare 1 pound orzo according to package directions.
  • Whisk together 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup olive oil, and the juice of half a lemon (or use lemon-infused olive oil)
  • Combine with the pasta, stirring to coat well.
  • Toss with a cup of black olives (pitted) and a cup of crumbled feta cheese
  • Add freshly ground black pepper to taste, and serve.

You can also adapt this recipe using rice, and  serve it at room temperature as a salad or antipasti.

There are many varieties of olives available in the deli section of most supermarkets today,


but when I was a kid there were only two kinds, and both came in jars or cans – green with pimentos, and black, pitted. My favorite was always the black olives.

Garlic Olives were a popular hors d’ouevre in my family when we were growing up, and it still is, even with all the other olive options now available. It’s a very simple and inexpensive recipe:

garlic olives [206x169]

  • Use large black pitted olives, the kind that come in a can. Drain the brine.
  • Put olives in a shallow glass or ceramic bowl or container — add olive oil to just barely cover.
  • Add lots of garlic cloves. Nowadays I also often add some sprigs of rosemary, and/or chile pepper flakes.
  • Cover and let it marinate for a couple of hours (minimum) at room temperature, or longer, in the refrigerator.
  • Serve at room temperature.

In the unlikely event there are any leftover, they will keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

As kids, we thought these were the height of sophistication, even though we certainly were not — we’d stick our fingers in the olive holes and then nibble the olives off each finger. Definitely not sophisticated etiquette, but it was fun.

Of course, the olive adds the final, all-important touch to that classic cocktail of true sophistication: the martini. Cheers!



6 thoughts on “O is for Olives

  1. I have been crazy about olives all my life, ever since I went around as a kid with them stuck on the ends of all my fingers. That was real finger food. I have to be careful because of that adage, “You can’t eat just one!” I could sit and eat a whole can of black olives at one sitting. You also told me a lot of historical stuff on olives I didn’t know. Good job. Gordon.

    • Yeah, I guess all kids like to do that…it would drive my mom crazy, but hey, OBVIOUSLY those holes in the olives were designed for fingers! ;-D

  2. I think it is amazing how any type of foods can symbolize something or have a certain purpose in the world other than to be eaten. I never knew that olives had such an impact on Rome the way it did. Also, olives can be used to add flavor to drinks, fry them, etc. We never know how important foods are in the world.

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