It was my first day in Tunisia and I had been whisked off by my hosts to visit a museum. Not any old museum, mind, but one that had mosaics as its theme. Bardo had mosaics on the walls, on plaques, on the floors, even on the ceiling. Most of them were old and faded. And well they deserved to be, because some of them dated to the centuries BC. A few murals depicted the olive tree and olive oil pressing and those are the ones that my hosts gleefully pointed out to me. “Look!” they exclaimed excitedly. “That’s how old the association between Tunisia and olive-growing is.” Tunisia also has an ancient Roman ruin at Dougga, where amidst the still impressive amphitheatre and public baths, you can still make out olive presses.
It was the same in Izmir and Ephesus in Turkey as well as at Jerash in Jordan: the Roman empire meant trade across the Mediterranean basin and that in turn meant trading in olive oil. In the Greek island of Crete, there were ancient ruins, to be sure, but the most telling example of how old olive-growing on the island was, lay in a single tree. It was said to be between 2,500 and 3,000 years old! The village of Vouves had a bare handful of houses. I didn’t see as much as a shop or a post-office. Had it not been for the tree that had catapulted it into worldwide fame, Vouves would have remained a remote village in an island where olive trees carpet the hillsides and valleys and vastly outnumber the human population.
In fact, all the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, grow olives and make use of olive oil whether they belong to the Northern portion of the region In Europe (Spain, France, Italy and Greece), the South Eastern part (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) or the South Western edge that lies in Africa (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). In fact, my travels in the area showed me that the Mediterranean Sea is a unifying force as well as a divider, forcing countries that would have been close neighbours to separate into three continents and have their own distinct culture. Somewhat coincidentally, all the countries to the north of the sea are Christian and all to the south are Muslim!
Greece holds the world record for the most number of olive trees and the highest production of oil, Spain exports the most olive oil yet Italian olive oil has the most cachet. Somehow, the European countries of the Mediterranean don’t seem as hung up on proving their credentials in the age-old sweepstakes. But even here, there’s a difference in the olive itself. Greece has two primary olives: Koroneiki is used to make oil and Kalamata is used as a table olive. In Spain, things are very different. The southern belt, in Andalusia, ruled by the Moors for 800 years, is where the bulk of olive production takes place, over low hills topped by toothpaste white villages on the hilltops. Andalusian olives are predominantly Picual and Picudo, but in other regions of the country, there are varieties like Hojiblanca, Cornicabra, Empeltre and Arbequina. Most Spanish oils are sold by varietal. So there’s Hojiblanca for dressing a salad, Picual for cooking with when you want a pungent flavour and so on. Most Spaniards would have upwards of three varietals in their kitchen – it’s not even considered a big deal. And the average supermarket carries at least a dozen varietals, to say nothing of individual brand names.
In Italy, it’s a different ball-game altogether. The slightly under-developed south, especially the province of Puglia, grows the most olives. One of the four main varieties, Leccino, is frequently interspersed with almond trees, so this particular varietal has an undertone of almonds in it. A Greek friend was alarmed. She has a life-threatening allergy to nuts and was hesitant to try leccino, but when she was persuaded to, she felt no ill effects. It would probably be the same in Sicily, where a variety of olive is grown whose name is Nocilara, which means ‘walnut-like’, because walnut trees are interspersed with olive trees, so that the fruit (yes, olive is a fruit, albeit one with a high percentage of oil) has the nutty flavour of walnuts.
The whole magic of the olive tree, that finds mention in the Bible and the Quran, is how the varietal changes with the terrain. In Liguria, olive oil is famously peppery, and it is mild, sweet and rounded in Central Italy’s Tuscany and Umbria. However, the norm in Italy is to blend varietals. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s what most Scotch whisky houses do too – but the magic of the single varietal is lost.
Jordan’s tradition of cold mezze means that good quality olive oil finds its way to the table via the muhammara and the hummus that precedes every meal. In fact, olive oil is an integral part of breakfast in Jordan thanks to ‘ful’ – the hearty bean stew that comes with a do-it-yourself kit of roasted and ground cumin, shredded cilantro leaves, chopped onions and the best quality of olive oil that you can lay your hands on. It’s probably the same in the other two countries of the Levant that I have yet to visit: Syria and Lebanon.
Turkey grows olives, and like most of the countries along the southern margins of the Mediterranean Sea, is dry and arid. Much of Turkey’s crop is exported in the form of oil, a large part of which is exported loose, that is to say, without the benefit of a brand name. Where Turkey certainly wins is in its cuisine, that is as Mediterranean as one could get, with the same ratio of vegetables to seafood to meats as every other olive producing country in the region. All Turkey’s cold appetizers and simple grilled fish would benefit immensely from a dollop of olive oil. That’s how a meal in neighbouring Greece is constructed, where a main course could be nothing more elaborate than a whole fish roasted and served with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of sea salt. It is this which is referred to as the Mediterranean diet and along with all the other adjuncts – fresh, clean air, plenty of exercise and a life that is led firmly away from the fast lane – that is touted as the key to a healthy life.
To the extreme west of the region, in North Africa, lie Tunisia and Morocco. Tunisian olives are chemleli and chatoui, and are grown on flat, barren plains that stretch endlessly. All over the country, you can spot groups of Berber ladies cheerfully climbing up ladders to manually pick black olives. By contrast, neighbouring Morocco has specialized in the highest degree of mechanized olive picking by machines – unheard of in any other country. Certainly, if you see a picture of a steep hillside with an ancient olive tree clinging stubbornly to it and a faded net beneath to capture fallen olives, you’ll know it’s Greece. It’s these little individual touches that makes the region the rich tapestry that it is.