Although olives were grown in ancient Asia and Africa, the country of Spain likes to claim top honors in its discovering this fruit. However, evidence of olive cultivation can be traced as far back as 5,000 B.C. in Mediterranean countries, which embraced this glorious delicacy, Picture an ancient Greek or Roman scribe pouring over some valuable parchment scroll while munching on olives. The Roman poet Horace consumed them daily and proclaimed them to be one of the world's perfect foods. (There weren't a lot of food choices back then, but he was definitely onto something.)
They are mentioned frequently in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and of course who can dismiss the venerable olive branch which symbolizes peace. Hebrew cuisine valued the fruit as well as the oil, which was considered holy and had many uses, including oil lamps, personal grooming and religious ceremonies.
The island of Crete made a major impact in the olive business several thousand years B.C. but has been dwarfed in modern times by larger and more populated countries. Case in point, Spain takes top honors for introducing olive trees to the Americas, where they showed up around the time Columbus raised his sails and headed West. (Who knows, maybe Columbus had something to do with it.) It is believed that Spanish missionaries in the 18th century brought the olive tree to U.S. territory as they traveled up through Mexico, finding their way to the rich soils of California before it was settled and achieved statehood. Still a major industry in Spain, they boast the largest production with approximately 6 million tons per year. Italy and Greece place second and third with 2.5 to 3.5 million tons annually. There's no question that the Mediterranean countries lead the pack, as 90% of all olives are pressed for their precious oil, while the remaining 10% left whole. In California's Central Valley 27,000 acres of olive trees are farmed yearly. Overall, more olives are produced than grapes, worldwide.
No doubt about it, the U.S. uses a hefty share of the yearly yield, not only the California crop but imports as well. And since the healthy benefits of olive oil are touted, we buy it by the gallon. We may not have brought them over on the Mayflower, but once the influx of immigrants began, we were quick to adopt them. Now many food stores feature an olive bar, priced by the pound. Years ago, it was even a popular female name (and who can forget Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl).
The olive tree is remarkably hardy, and many have been identified throughout Mediterranean countries as over a thousand years old and still producing. They favor sun and hot weather and don't get thirsty as often as other agricultural crops, thus making them well-suited to Southern climates. Ancient Roman Emperors ordered them to be planted in the Forum. Greeks treasured their Kalamata variety, indigenous to the region that bears its name. They graced the dining tables in Israel, Syria and Turkey, featuring their own regional favorites. In South America, the country of Argentina has proclaimed olive oil a "national food" and is striving to enter the world economy. They may not be a major player yet, but they've set their sights on this popular export.
After harvesting, olives require curing since they cannot be eaten right from the tree. (Don't even think about it.) A lengthy process is required, using lye, brine, water or salt, with a fermentation period to eliminate the strong bitter taste. For oil production, the first press is Extra Virgin, the highest quality. The next press is simple olive oil. It's interesting to note that most cooking oils require chemicals or industrial refining, while olive oil is an exception. (No wonder it's good for us.)
Coming late to the party, Japan's island of Shodoshima, (or affectionately called "Olive Island"), produces a high quality olive oil which started in 1908. Clearly not a player in the industry, the Japanese people seem content with their own special crop and keep it to themselves.
So don't limit your repertoire to just eating them whole or fishing them out of martinis. Cast your net wider and include them in a variety of recipes. They add flavor, color and a little oomph to just about everything. But just as a cautionary note, if you don't purchase the pitted ones, please give your guests and family a "heads up!" No one wants a nice meal spoiled with an emergency trip to the dentist.