Blessed Fruit of the Mediterranean

Food & Drink

The olive tree, an ancient symbol of peace, has held the secret to longevity for centuries.

Text: Marilena Joannides 

Throughout history, olives and the Mediterranean have been synonymous, forming an inseparable bond, like fruit and the tree that bears it. The words of French historian Fernand Braudel encapsulate this timeless relationship; “The Mediterranean starts where the first olive tree sprouts and ends where the first palm forests appear on the African continent.”

Findings from archaeological excavations indicate that the olive tree has been in Cyprus since 7000 BCE. Its intensive cultivation seems to have begun during the 2nd millennium BCE. In the Pyrgos-Mavrorachi archaeological site, an olive oil production area was found and dated from the 19th century BCE. This ancient olive press, one of the oldest in the Mediterranean, proves that olive oil had many applications, including nutritional, medicinal, ceremonial, and lighting. According to Strabo (63 BCE-25 CE), a Greek geographer, philosopher and historian, Cyprus was particularly rich in olive cultivation and oil production.

Τhe cultivation of olives in Cyprus is a longstanding agricultural practice. Wild and domesticated varieties can be found almost everywhere, even at altitudes exceeding 1,000 metres above sea level. The local variety of olives have adapted to the climate of Cyprus and are particularly resistant to drought. When olives are picked, they are small and green. They are washed, cracked, soaked in brine and served as a popular delicacy called Tsakistes. Kolimbates are olives that float in a jar of olive oil or brine. If these olives are left longer on trees, they turn black and undergo pickling, a process called Xidates, or are salt-cured and dried.

Tsakistes are traditionally served with coarsely ground coriander seeds, garlic, lemon slices and olive oil. There was a time in Karpasia when they used fresh fennel, which has an aroma that combines well with fresh olives, instead of coriander. Kolimbates (referenced as ‘Vomvoia’ in a dictionary from the 5th century CE), are served with coarsely ground pepper, olive oil and pieces of halloumi.

Liquid Gold

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality olive oil. It is the fresh, natural juice of olive fruit produced without any chemical processing, preserving all the valuable vitamins and trace elements to ensure the simplest recipe for health and well-being. The traditional expression for Cypriot olive oil is Lathin Kalo (good oil) – a gift from nature which plays a prominent role in Cypriot cuisine. A key ingredient in the Cypriot-Mediterranean diet, virgin olive oil adds flavour and complexity to even the simplest dishes. Above all, it is a natural superfood, extremely beneficial for the proper functioning of the body.

Olive oil’s well-balanced chemical composition and favourable organoleptic properties contribute to its high degree of assimilation by the human body and aid in the digestion of other foods. Moreover, compared to seed oils, it is less prone to oxidation during frying, thereby minimising the formation of harmful free radicals and peroxides that can adversely affect the central nervous system. Regular consumption of olive oil is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, while research suggests that it may protect the brain from damaging changes, possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

Cypriot extra virgin olive oil boasts a distinctively-fruity aroma and robust flavour, both of which are attributed to the variety of the olive tree and the soil conditions of the region where it is grown. The fruity profile combines the fragrant scents of green tomatoes, artichokes and, in some cases, freshly-cut grass or bitter almonds. On the palate, the taste is slightly bitter with a moderate pungency in the throat and a pleasant aftertaste without any greasy mouthfeel. These desirable characteristics are considered positive indicators of quality and distinction.

Cypriot extra virgin olive oil is evolving and its quality is being improved upon. Today, it is found in markets to complement our diet and cuisine. But be careful! Unlike fine wine, good olive oil does not age. Therefore, it is advisable to consume it before the next harvest.

Chemistry Speaks for Itself

A glance at the chemical composition of EVOO reveals its nutritional qualities. Extra virgin olive oil is composed of 99% fatty acids that aid in human metabolism. Of these, oleic acid (omega-9) is foremost and the only fatty acid classified as monounsaturated; that is, it does not lower good cholesterol or raise bad cholesterol. Olive oil also contains a fair amount of linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3). Both are essential as the human body cannot synthesise them and must get them from various foods. In addition, olive oil offers a unique combination of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids that, combined with innate-natural antioxidants, give it very high nutritional value. Phenols are natural antioxidants in olive oil that contribute to its bitter taste and resistance to oxidation. Phenolic content has several factors, including the species of tree and its environment and the manner of its cultivation, extraction and storage. Olive oil contains more phenols when fresh. Its other beneficial components include tocopherols, a great source of vitamins E and B-sitosterol. The latter prevents the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. In addition, squalene contains vitamin A and many antioxidant properties, while chlorophyll helps with cell growth, healing of damaged tissues, and metabolism.

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