Someone once remarked: Hungry? Add a second olive to your martini.” There are a few more uses for the tasty olive though, and the many health benefits of the oil from the olive have been touted highly in recent years. The olive originated in the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest references to olive oil use and trade date back to about 2000-3000 BC. The oil was used for both cooking and for burning in lamps. The Romans improved oil extraction methods and the cultivars used for oil.
Olives arrived in California right around 1769, when Franciscan padres in San Diego founded the first mission there. The olive industry in California began in the late 1800’s when settlers planted orchids from cuttings taken from the original mission trees. The trees are extremely long-lived, sometimes lasting up to a thousand years. They have attractive, silver-green foliage and are very resistant to drought and poor soil conditions. The olive is associated with peace and serenity as in the Biblical reference where another peace symbol, the dove, returns to Noah’s Ark with an olive branch in its mouth. In other mythology, Odysseus used an olive branch to jab into the eye of Cyclops thus blinding him so that he could escape.
Olive oil is an important component in the Mediterranean diet and is even included in the European food pyramid. It is monounsaturated oil that may help prevent cancer and reduce bad cholesterol.
Worldwide olive production weighs in at about 40 billion pounds per year. Olives are produced in 39 countries worldwide on an area of over 20 million acres. They are the most extensively cultivated temperate fruit in the world, having even surpassed that of the noble grape. Literally, there are thousands of varieties of olives, though only a handful of cultivars have widespread commercial growth. Here are some of the best olive bars in the St. Louis area:
Whole Foods on Brentwood Blvd in St. Louis has the most variety of olives. At any given time, they have 45 crocks full of different types of olives, spiced and mixed, pitted and unpitted. They have the tasty garbanzo-looking arbequina, an olive native to Spain, sitting right next to the gigantic alfonso olive that is native to Chili.
Viviano’s Italian Market in the Hill area of southwest St. Louis has a large board advertising the names and the prices of the day’s olive selection. Behind the counter are huge drums of olives, most of them from Italy. According to the store’s owner, kalamatas and other oil-cured olives are best for cooking. The only problem is that most fresh olives still have the pits, and removing them can be a hassle.
The Pitted Olive at 5815 Hampton has a huge selection of imported olives. They also have an olive tapenade and a muffaletta relish. Most area Schnuck’s and Dierberg’s Supermarkets now have a pretty decent selection of olives on their salad bars.
The best way to find out which varieties of olives you like best is to go to one of the bars and taste a variety until you find the best ones for you. It’s a lot of fun finding out about this strange and mysterious fruit, and there enough places in the St. Louis area to do just that.