Tree of life

The recipe

Preciously few good things have ever come from family squabbles. The olive tree might just be the very best of the very few.

olives anchovies putanesca

Legend has it that Athena and Poisedon could not agree on which of them should rule Attica (sounds familiar does it not?).

As the gods had yet to discover the benefits of free and fair elections, and impartial electoral commissions and transparent tender boards have not been devised yet, they called on the father of the gods, Zeus, to arbitrate.

Zeus, with wisdom and foresight to match his age, decided that the one who could show a discovery most beneficial to mankind would be declared winner, and thus, ruler of Attica.

Athena asked Mother Earth to grow a new tree, and thus the olive tree (Olea europaea) was created. Zeus, impressed with the new creation, declared Athena the winner, and thus Attica got its first female ruler. The Greeks gods were ahead of their times, indeed.

Few things are as closely connected to the people, culture and food of the Mediterranean regions.  Odysseus and Penelope made their marriage bed in a hollowed-out olive tree and the statutes of the gods, including that of Zeus and Athena, were regularly rubbed with olive oil to retain their spirits. The Spartans laid to rest their deceased, not in an expensive or elaborate wooden coffin, but on a bed of olive leaves.

If our beloved Johanna Benson participated in the Olympic games of those times, she would have returned home crowed with olive branches instead of large, heavy medals made of precious medals. And we would have thought no less of her.

In fact, come to think it, she might have been our first olive farmer, and the Kuiseb valley might have been covered in olive trees instead of !nara plants. And our festive tables would bend under the weight of whale belly slow poached in olive oil and omajhova and olive tapenade.

And the motley crew that wears the Welwitchia jersey could rub their legs with enough olive oil to slip through the toughest tackles – yes even those made by All Black loose forwards. And maybe, just maybe, on a sunny afternoon in a big stadium in front of hundred thousand spectators and ten rich, politically-connected Namibians, they’ll pull it through.

Dear oh dear! Just think of that. I get goose bumps just thinking of that reception.

But don’t think about eating the fruit straight from these precious trees. They are quite simply unpalatable due to the large amount of oleuropein in their flesh. It is their natural defense mechanism, against those who mean it harm, man or beast.

To remove the bitterness the raw fruits have to be soaked in several changes of water, to which the Romans added alkaline wood ashes to reduce the debittering period. These days, industrial producers add sodium hydroxide or better known as ‘lye’.

This helps to break down the bitter oleuropein and outer cuticle, and starts dissolving the cell walls. This helps the fruit to absorb the salt brine-solution that follows next. It could take a few weeks and numerous water changes to complete the fermentation process that makes the olive fruits edible. In cooking, like the tomato, the olive is a fruit used as a vegetable.

Olive oil is produced from the flesh of the fruit, not the seed. The olives are picked, either by hand, or mechanically, when they are six to eight months old and just changing colour from green to purple. They are then washed and crushed – with pit and sometimes leaves as well.

pasta olives putanesca

Next, they are finely ground into a paste to release the oils. This paste is mixed for around 30 minutes to separate the oil from the water. This step is called ‘malaxation’. Next, the pulp is pressed to remove the oil and water from the pulp, and afterward, the oil is separated from the other fluids through centrifuge. As a final step, the oil is filtered and stored. About 90% of all olives produced worldwide are used for olive oil.

Olive trees only start to produce fruit in their fifth or six year, and full production is achieved when trees are between 15 and 20 years old.

When buying olive oil, the label should identify the type of oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is produced during the first (cold) pressing and has an acidity level of less than 1%. It is regarded as the most flavourful. Virgin oil, comes from subsequent (cold) pressings and has an acidity level of less than 2%.

Refined olive oil is produced from ‘hot’ pressings and generally regarded as the least flavourful.  Pure olive oil consists of refined oil blended with virgin oil to increase the flavour profile. Extra virgin oils are generally the most expensive and because of its intenser flavour profiles should not be used for cooking but rather as a flavouring agent in salad dressings, to make cold sauces such as aioli and mayonnaise, and to finish off cooked dishes. Exposure to heat tends to destroy at least some of the sought-after flavours in good quality extra-virgin olive oil.

Life has changed a lot since I tasted my first olive. I was already a grown man with a degree when a becoming young lady offered me that first olive in a room lit by candles and filled with academic books and studious dreams. It was love at first sight and first bite. And whilst my love affair with olives comfortably outlived my love for the becoming young lady, I still enjoy seeing someone taking that first tentative bite and fall in love with the culinary magic that is produced by the olive tree – a tree born from a squabble but spreading only joy.

If there is one dish that encapsulates all the flavours of the Mediterranean, it is this simple, yet classic Italian pasta sauce. Puttanesca.

It is a sauce full of robust flavours: anchovies, capers, chillies and off course the mighty olive and its oil. So say the name out loud and with great vigor and enthusiasm: Put-ta-nes-ca!

In case you wondered what it means, it was named after prostitutes who put this dish in their windows to lure men into the bordellos.

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