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Olives & Olive Oil

Cyprus Food

Cyprus Olives and Olive Oil

Olive trees are one of my favourite trees in Cyprus, they are such beautiful trees, each with a character of their own.  They are beautiful trees to study and my favourite exercise in the winter is picking the olives and taking them to the olive mill where they will be pressed into virgin olive oil.  In our household we only cook with olive oil, nothing else.  

The problem with olive picking is that you are never quite sure when the olives will be ready. It depends on a number of things, mainly weather and rainfall.    As with all fruits and vegetables, some years are very good and some not so good but it usually balances out and you can keep olive oil for up to 3 years if stored properly, maybe longer.            

For thousands of years now, the inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries have cultivated the olive tree and used its for their daily needs.  Olives and oil were consumed, the leaves and oil had therapeutic powers and were also used as incense

Olive oil is believed to be responsible for the good health and longevity of the people who consume it.  Medical studies conducted in Europe and the US show that this natural product is the key to good health and vitality and helps keep the heart strong.  There is currently a project in run by the European union called the Eurolive project, which was set up to assess the beneficial effects of olive oil on human health.  It is focused on examining the importance of the phenolic compounds of olive oil on oxidative stress and oxidative damage in humans.  It is is aimed at providing information to the European Consumers, and to the Olive Oil Industry, about the cost/benefit ratio of the different olive oils on the market.  The types of olive oil that are currently on the market in are Pomace, Common, and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

The Olive is a plant that has fascinated people throughout history.  In the book of Genesis Moses speaks of this tree that was said to grow on Mount Ararat and Noah was brought an olive branch by the dove.  Records show that the Egyptians cultivated the olive in the seventeenth century BC. On the islands of the Aegean, Santorini and Nisyos, fossilized olive tree leaves aged fifty to sixty thousands years old were discovered! Experts of Palaeobotany believe that what was discovered were leaves of cultivated olive trees.

It is widely believed that the origin of the Olive (Olea europaea) is believed to have come from the region of Iran and the coast of Syria and Palestine, other opinions are that it originated around the north shore of the Black Sea. According to Greek Mythology  Hercules  is said to have carried some branches of the tree to Greece on his travels from the region.  The olive tree and the products were known to the Cretans about 3500 BC. In Homeric times 900 BC the oil of olives was regarded as a luxury and was used to anoint the body. Whilst in the classical Roman times, preserved olives and oil were highly sought and regarded as a very desirable asset because they could be preserved and transported easily.

The introduction of olive trees in Cyprus can be traced back to Neolithic times.  The fruits of the wild olive tree were used as a food from the Neolithic period (6000-3000 BC) in Cyprus, while abundant archaeological and botanical evidence shows that the olive tree started being intensively cultivated on the island from the Late Bronze Age.

The olive tree and its produce have for centuries played a significant role in the nutrition, economy, religious ceremonies, habits and customs of the Cypriots. According to Ancient Greek and Roman writings, the olive tree along with the Carob tree and the vine tree, were the main characteristic of the Rural Areas in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.  The trade in Olive oil in ancient Cyprus was linked to the Sanctuary of the Goddess Dianna and Hera.  According to Strabo Cyprus was rich in Olive oil and wine. Areas of production in olden times are still considered important today.

A major expansion of olive cultivation occurred in the 1930's. Between 1946 and 1958 olive trees increased by 40% and since 1953 the olive tree has become the most numerous non-forest tree in Cyprus.  To-day olive tree is grown in compact groves or, more often, mixed with other crops such as fruit trees, carobs and cereals. It is also found scattered on uncultivated land, steep slopes, rocky ground, or in residential areas.

In the Christian religion, olive oil is one of the three blessed products, Wine, wheat and Olive Oil.  Bread supports and strengthens the heart, wine lightens the spirit and the oil relaxes the body.

The extraction of Olive oil requires a series of operations.  After harvesting, the olives are selected, cleaned and crushed in special oil mills, where they are reduced to an oily paste.  Traditionally the paste was collected in folded cloths made of reeds and then subjected to pressing but nowadays the process is all done by a special machine press.  The olives are put in at one end of the process and the oil comes out at the other.

Traditionally in Cyprus, Olive oil was stored in large earthenware pots called "pitharia", which can still be seen in gardens all over Cyprus and now used as decoration. The olive paste was collected, stored in the reed cloths or pockets and stacked into the olive press which then pushed the mats down and produced the oil which went directly into the "pithari".

The different methods of oil pressing will be covered later on.

The first pressing produces the "virgin" olive oil, which is the most prized.  The residual pulp is subjected to further pressings at higher pressures and yields oil of second and sometimes, third pressing.  The various grades of oil are classified on the basis of the percentage of acidity expressed in oleic acid which goes from a minimum of 1% to a maximum of 4%.  In practice the different grades go from "extra virgin olive oil" to "superfine virgin olive oil" to "fine virgin olive oil" to simply "virgin olive oil".  Inferior oils are "olive oil" and "husk and olive oil".

If you visit Kontoyiannis House in the winter months, you may get the chance to pick olive from our orchard.  In fruitful years it has been known for us to pick olives and go to the press at three different times. Olives ripen at different times and its best to pick them when they are ripe, otherwise the oil will be inferior.  If you leave them on the tree too long with will just fall off the tree and then its not so easy to gather them, particularly if its a rainy winter.  One year we picked them all and left them in the fields till we collected the whole lot but when we processed the oil it was not very good at all, so we are learning!

We invite our guest to come stay in the house during the winter months, help us pick our olives and come with us to the olive press. Nowadays, the pressing of olives is an easy matter.  Just take the olives to the olive mill put them into the chute and they come out the other end as olive oil.  Its all done in one go.  Usually we only take the first pressing which is the virgin olive oil.  Its a tradition to take some of this oil and have it on toast which have been prepared in the cafeteria of the olive mill.  You just pour the fresh olive oil over hot toast and add salt and lemon juice to taste.  Personally, I prefer mine without lemon.

We will be adding photos to this page very soon!  Its just that we are usually so busy picking the olives that we forget to take photos of it but this year I will be taking my camera along to the olive mill as well, so watch this space...........

Olive picking is one of my favourite pastimes and not to be missed if I can help it! The trees are so beautiful and have a life and character of their own.  If you get the chance to pick olives don't miss it!

If you would like some recipes with olives or olive oil, then why not go to our Traditional Cyprus Recipe section on olives, oil etc.  If you have any questions on olives or oil production in Cyprus, just drop us a line and we will see if we can help.

For more specialist advice, The Cyprus Olive Products Marketing Board is responsible for marketing Cyprus olive products.  They can be found in Latsia, Nicosia, tel: 22483266.

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