Olives - part of the history and way of life of Southern France

Olive tree

Olives and olive trees are one of the plants most cited in ancient literature. The region of Languedoc-Roussillon is steeped in history, and just like the Romans who once thrived here, the locals use olives and olive oil in many of their Mediterranean recipes and to make other products such as soap.

To bear fruit, there must be at least two trees so that pollination can take place. Slow growing, the trees rarely exceed 8-15 metres high and tend to spread out rather than up. The older they get, the more fruit they produce but they seldom bear well two years in succession. There are some olive trees still growing today that are about 2000 years old. They need careful pruning each year to preserve the flower-bearing shoots of the preceding year in order to maximise yield. Harvesting takes place during the winter months - typically November to January.

Green and black olives are from the same plant; the green ones are picked earlier and the black ones are left to ripen. They are very good for you, containing monounsaturated fat, iron, vitamin E and dietary fibre. Considerable research supports the health-giving benefits of consuming olives and olive oil such as favourable effects on cholesterol regulation and that it has anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic and antihypertensive effects as well.

Olives

However, getting them from the tree to your table is not as simple as just picking them. Most olives today are harvested by shaking the boughs or the whole tree into a net that wraps around the trunk of the tree and opens to form an umbrella-like catcher. Table olive varieties are more difficult to harvest, as workers must take care not to damage the fruit.

The naturally bitter olives are soaked and washed thoroughly in water to remove the sour carbohydrate, then drained and subjected to fermentation or cured with brine. This takes about two weeks but they can be left to cure for up to three months.

Olive oil

Oil is extracted from the olives by grinding producing the highest quality oil from the first pressing and a lower grade of oil from the second press. 'Virgin' means the oil was produced naturally and 'refined' means the oil has been chemically treated to neutralise strong tastes and the acid content. Oils labelled as 'pure olive oil' or 'olive oil' are usually a blend of refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil. As with wine, there are many varieties offering different tastes and textures and with price tags just as varied.

Olive trees are very much a part of the scenery of Languedoc; as old as time and an iconic symbol of the Mediterranean way of life.

Olive grove