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Athena's Gift

Olives and Olive Oil

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Greek olive tree showing the olives and leaves

Greek olive branch

Photo © deTraci Regula, About Greece; licensed to About.com
Ancient Athena, goddess of wisdom, was challenged by Poseidon to provide the Greeks with the most useful divine gift. He produced warhorses and a saltwater spring, but Athena won with her creation, the olive tree. This versatile fruit and its oil has been found to reduce cholesterol as well as impart its distinctive taste to Mediterranean cuisine. Good olive oil is as revered as fine wine. Here are some olive-related links to guide you in your journey through this wonderful part of Greek cuisine.

Recent research has indicated that the Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy and can contribute to longevity. The Greek olive oil companies are perhaps justifiably proud of their contributions. There are many reasons why virgin olive oil is good for you.

Wild and cultivated olive trees cover the Greek hills with their pale, grey-green foliage. The Messinia prefecture is where Kalamata is located and where olives thrive especially well. The Kalamata olive is exported widely - it's a purple colored olive with a distinctive "point" on it and is usually served with the rough pit intact - so mind your teeth. If you're served authentic Greek olives at a Greek restaurant abroad, they are usually kalamatas.

Crete produces many olives, including the koroneiki, throumbolia, and the small oil-rich tsounati, which is so small it doesn't even look like it's an olive on your salad, resembling a large, lighter green caper. Then you taste it and it explodes with the essence of olive in your mouth.

The tallest trees, often just one or two at the edge of an olive grove, produce the table olives. Unfortunately, ancient trees are often uprooted now to make way for more uniform, higher-yield smaller trees. Few of the table olive trees survive since olive oil has become such a massive cash crop.

Elsewhere in Greece, you'll see the konservolia, which is a rounder olive usually salted and spiced for serving with food. In Northern Greece, the Halkidiki olive grows on the peninsula of the same name. This olive is larger and is sometimes exported stuffed with a garlic clove. A small magaritiki olive comes from around Athens itself, and is dried until it is black and wrinkled, with a richly flavored, moist flesh. These are usually packed in olive oil, which may be spiced with pepper flakes or other seasonings.

Preserved olives come in jars, cans, and in vacuum-packed plastic bags. The glass jars may make some travelers nervous, but the cans are virtually indestructible. For sheer convenience, the vacuum-packed olives are easiest to pack and the most worry-free.

If you're confused about the dizzying, delicious olives to choose between, here's help: Kalamata olives. The Tassos Olive Oil website also has a blog of questions and answers about olive oil - including the answer to "Why is Olive Oil green?" - or not!

The Italian Museo dell'Olivo gives some fascinating history about the olivein Roman times. "It has been estimated that every adult citizen going to the gymnasium used as much as 55 liters (14.3 gallons) of oil annually, as follows:
for personal hygiene : 3O liters (7.8 gal)
for diet : 2O liters (5.2 gal)
as a lubricant or for lighting : 3 liters (3.2 qt)
for ritual uses : 2 liters (2.1 qt)
as a medicament : 0,5 liters (1.1 pt) "

Have flavorful, healthful fun sampling the olives and olive oils of Greece.
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