Sunday, 14 June 2020

Olive Trees and Oil and The Mediterranean Diet

I spent time on Majorca, working at a Finca which grew olives. Ancient olive trees were dotted alongside the mountains, which reminded me of a magical forest like living tree-men, the branches looked like limbs with their strange gnarled shapes. Olive tree were considered to be a symbol of peace and immortality and were known as the Tree of Eternity, in part because the trees can live for up to 1500 years. The first olive plant was cultivated some 7,000 years ago in Mediterranean regions. Like many things they were introduced to Spain by the Romans. The first recorded evidence was during Julius Caesar's campaigns. In the book De Bello Hispanico, it relates an anecdote about Caesar's cavalry planting an olive tree plantation close to Sevilla, in AndalucĂ­a, in the 1st century BC. Olive oil production continued to grow during the Moorish occupation, the trees surviving the ravages and devastation of many wars. Historians claim that the olive is synonymous of civilization. During the 16th and 17th centuries, olives were later taken to the New World by Spanish settlers, and are now established in many former colonial areas, including California and South America.

Spain has a surprising variety of climates and microclimates. With thousands of years of evolution, the olive tree has adapted to cope with extreme conditions. These include drought, fire, poor soils and even very low temperatures for short periods. There are 260 olive varieties used to produce Spanish olive oils meaning that there is a far wider range of aromas and tastes amongst Spanish oils than amongst those of any other oil producing nation. Some Spanish oils taste sweet and smooth, whereas others have great body and character with a varying intensity of a pleasant bitterness or pungency. Spanish olive oils usually have an intense fruity aroma reminiscent of green or ripe olives.
Since ancient times it has been deeply rooted into all the areas of human experience from the material aspects of life to the spiritual and was considered a sacred food. Its many uses have converted olive oil in a highly valued and greatly appreciated commodity. In addition to its culinary uses for dressings, or as an excellent method of food preservation, oil has been used for medicinal, cosmetic, and religious purposes. Spanish olive oil has many ambassadors. Award-winning chefs create 9-course menus from this ‘liquid gold’ to demonstrate how to incorporate the traditional flavour of Mediterranean food into modern gourmet cuisine. Food tourism is becoming popular holding tastings, similar to wine tastings, to introduce customers to trying and selecting the right oil.

Nowadays nutrition studies have confirmed its incredible health benefits. The antioxidants in olive oil help protect the body from cellular damage caused by molecules called free radicals that can lead to a range of health conditions and disease. In the Mediterranean, people preserve olives in olive oil or salted water eating them whole or chopped adding them to many traditional dishes. Olive oil is used as a dip for bread, for drizzling on pasta, in cooking, or as a salad dressing. Some people consume it by the spoonful for medicinal purposes.

Extra virgin olive oil, which is the best quality oil available, contains a large amount of monounsaturated fats and some polyunsaturated fatty acids. Apart from its beneficial fatty acids, it contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K. biologically active and may reduce your risk of chronic disease. The diets of adults from several Mediterranean islands were analysed to see how olive oil related to aging. The researchers found that those who used olive oil exclusively as their dietary fat had significant improvements in the successful aging index, which is a measure of age-related lifestyle, social and clinical factors. These findings were especially strong for people over 70 years old.

The cultivation of olives and production of oil, has given wealth to Spain not just its economic but gastronomically. The Romans, may have been the first to cultivate olives but the Spanish have turned them into an artform!

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