Olive: An Immortal Fruit!

Features Issue 72 Jul, 2010
Text by Arina Sherchan

Lawrence Durrell once wrote (in The Alexandria Quartet) that “The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold breads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers—all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.”

Absolutely tantalizing with a chilled glass of wine, highly prized as a pizza topping, a garnish on a wide variety of dishes, and the oil of which is beneficial for health — this is some of what we know about olives. Oh, yes, and there is also the famous lanky comedy character, ‘Olive’, girlfriend of ‘Popeye, the Sailor Man’. The olive, or Olea europaea, has been immortalized in print by many authors, but perhaps the first to hail its attributes was Pliny the Elder in 50 AD. He noted that “Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive”.

To embark in quest of the world’s most cultivated plant, picture yourself
near the origins of the olive along the golden shores of the Mediterranean. As modernized as the world has become, we are still admirers of things natural and simple, and this is to have the Mediterranean feeling in us.

The earliest recorded poets and scribes referred to the olive, its oil and its tree. It even appears in the Bible and in the Koran. Olives have been cultivated since prehistoric times and appear in one of the earliest cookbooks ever discovered, a 2000-year-old text by the Roman Epicurus (4th century BC), after whom we now have the words ‘epicurean’ and ‘epicure’ (one who takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink). In Greek mythology, Athena gave this luscious drupe to mankind as a gift and, in gratitude, the citizens of Attica were said to have named the city of Athens after her. (A drupe is a fleshy fruit with thin skin and central stone. The term is derived from dryppa, Greek for ‘olive’.) Moses exempted from military those men who worked at olive cultivation. Early civilizations believed that olives could cure every illness except death. Vincent van Gogh, the 19th century Dutch painter, illustrated both sunny and dark moments in his artwork with olive trees bearing twisted branches.
live branches were used in the Olympic flames, and the victor’s head carried a crown of olive leaves.

After the Romans defeated the Etruscans (Umbria, Tuscany), the initial cultivators of the olive, they spread it far and wide within the Empire. After awhile, however, olive oil production fell with the Roman Empire but its cultivation was revived during the Renaissance. Olive trees can grow to a height of 40 feet, are injured if the temperature falls below 26° F. (–3° C.), can tolerate drought well and live for centuries. The history of the olive is many centuries old, and its cultivation and sale have gone global. In Kathmandu, olives and olive oils in many varieties are available in stores and supermarkets including Bhatbhetini, Bluebird, Namaste and Saleway. Olives are widely used  by restaurants and hotels and as the health benefits of the olive become more well known, consumption is increasing.


Farmers in ancient times believed that olive trees would not grow well if planted more than a short distance from the sea. Behold, however, that this highly adorned Mediterranean fruit is now being grown in Nepal, far from any sea. The olive grove is located on terraced land in Bissingkhel in Palung, Chitlang Valley, about 80 km by road southwest of Kathmandu, at an altitude close to 2000m. The drive to the Chitlang is along the old Tribhuvan highway, Nepal’s first road connecting Kathmandu Valley with the outside world. What lay ahead us on that drive was a curiosity, a unique quest and some surprises. First, after three hours from Kathmandu, we arrived in the land of the Gopali people of Palung. The Gopalis are an ancient and colorful Newari community. There we saw Gopali men clad in daura suruwal, with flowers behind their ears, and women in traditional folk attire of black and scarlet. The olive trees of which we had heard were being cultivated nearby, but as we later found out, wild olives also grow abundantly (uncultivated) in western Nepal at Humla, Bhajura, Dolpa and Jumla.

Himalaya Plantations Pvt. Ltd. is a Nepal-German joint venture, registered in 1994. Hartmut Bouder, a German, is the director. Prior to coming to Nepal, he lived in southern France. Our quest began as we walked with him along muddy paths near a stream through his olive farm, and our first sight of olives was alluring. The plantation covers two broadly terraced hills, which Hartmut and his wife Pramila call ‘Vinci’ and ‘Tuscany’. The names reflect their affection for things Mediterranean. They began by planting 2300 olive tree of several varieties, imported from Italy and France. This year, however, perhaps due to the exceedingly wet monsoon, the trees at Vinci did not give many olives.

Himalayan Extra Virgin Oil is made from hand picked, green ripe olives that grow in the crystal clear mountain air. They are cold-pressed immediately after harvesting. The oil is low on acidity and high in natural antioxidants. To retain its superb qualities, this oil should be kept sealed after use, and stored in a cool dark place. Below 8° Celsius the oil becomes cloudy, but this does not influence its quality. It clears quickly at room temperature.

Olives are cultivated at Palung by two methods, rooted cuttings and grafting. When planted by rooted cuttings, a rooting agent (various combinations of chemicals) is added to the soil while the olive seeds are being planted, then provided with proper watering and sunlight conditions. Grafting involves taper-cutting a stem (called a scion) and wedding it with the stem of a mature olive tree. The grafted stem gradually grows into the tree in two and a half to three years. It works best in a nursery that is well ventilated, watered and temperature controlled.

The Himalayan Plantation is now old enough to sell young olive trees for cultivation by Nepali gardeners and farmers. Once planted, it takes seven years for the first olive crop to show. The trees are then pruned, an integral part of olive cultivation. The inner branches are cut to make the tree small and spread wide to receive sunlight to the fullest. Any diseased leaf, olive or tree is removed.

Among the surprises we encountered was the taste of a green olive directly from the tree. Not recommended. A bitterness remained on the tongue long after we were fooled into eating one. For the Himalayan Plantation, oil is the main product. The typical yield of olives from one tree is 1.5 to 2.2 kg of oil per year. Himalayan Plantation averages 250 to 300 liters of olive oil from 2000 and 2500 kg of olives produced.

The plantation employs six year-round employees, but during harvest time another 15 to 20 workers, from the local Gopali community and others, are added to the work force. Work begins early, at six o’clock a.m. Harvesting of the fully ripe olives is done  by raking the branches with a large comb-like device. A net is spread on the ground to catch the falling olives. As they are collected, the workers remove over ripe or brused olives. At 2 o’clock p.m., the collected olives are taken to Godawari (Hartmut’s house) where the oil pressing is done. The olives are kept in a netted box and a ventilator blows the leaves away, after which they are washed. The oil pressing time affects the acid content, which affects the quality of the oil. Pressing is done around 8 p.m. on the same day in a three-phase process. The olives are poured in a stainless steel container fitted with a crusher. Crushing lasts for 30 minutes under strict temperature control, not exceeding 27° Celsius, with water added as necessary. The result is piped to a centrifuge, where the liquid is separated from the solids. The oil is then bottled and sealed. The remainder is called pomace (water and paste), which can be further processed. The crusher and centrifuge operate continuously, and can process 80 kilograms of olives per hour.

The more the olive ripens, the higher its acid content and poorer the quality of the oil. Himalayan Olive Oil has an acid content of 0.2%, which makes an ideal ‘extra virgin’ quality oil. The company’s production has been examined by Australian, German and Italian experts who have set the standard as one of the best quality oils produced. The oil is then is sold at Rs 900 per bottle. The bottles are from China, the labels from Italy, and the fine cork from Portugal. Until now Himalayan Olive Oil has been distributed to relatively few individual’s on a special order basis, because oil production is not yet large enough to meet the demands of a greater market.


Olives destined for whole food consumption (not for making olive oil) are hand harvested to prevent bruising. A major question that arises is the difference between green and black olives. Aside from taste and color, they are from the same tree. The only difference is their ripeness. Green olives are picked when they are immature, while black olives remain on the stem longer. In a sense, the olive is synonymous with wine because it has many varieties according to taste and acidic content. On the stem, olives turn from green to bluish-purple to black as they ripen. Each country where olives are produced feature specialized methods of cultivation and treatment, with distinct types and flavors. All fresh olives are bitter and tough, whether unripe and green, or ripened to red-purple, or fully ripe and black.

The darker the olive, the higher the acid content, giving it a richer flavor. Green olives are harvested at the earliest stages of maturity. Pink olives are slightly riper, changing from pink to rose or brown prior to reaching full maturity. Black olives, harvested at full maturity, have smooth black skin and a deep reddish-black hue.

Green olives must be cured before they are edible. To leach out their bitterness, the olives are cured in salt brine for one to two months, or rubbed with coarse salt and dry-cured. Some varieties are best picked green, such as France’s Picholine and the Manzanilla from Spain. Most of the green olives consumed in the world are then sealed in glass jars for sale in stores. They are meant to be eaten as is.

Black olives, on the other hand, are cooked in the process of canning. Deep-black, ripe olives, such as Niçoise from France or the Greek Kalamata, are best picked at full maturity.

Pitted Olives are those that have the pit or stone removed. They are generally stuffed with an ingredient such as a pimiento, jalapeno, dried tomato, garlic or onion.

Unopened cans of olives have a shelf life of three to four years if stored on your pantry shelf. Olives have high flavor and can easily take over a dish, so they should be used discreetly.

Of the 750 million olive trees planted worldwide, only 10% of the annual harvest goes toward the production of table olives, for eating. The rest are harvested for their oil.

It is a wonder that different olives, and olives of different countries taste different. Rather than confuse yourself with the abundance of varieties and tastes, it is more fun to take the opportunity and try them all. But, not in one sitting.

Homer, the ancient Greek bard, called olive oil “liquid gold”. Olive oil has been more than mere food to the people of the Mediterranean; it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder, and a font of great wealth and power. It has been described in poetry and books since time immemorial.

Olives are grown mainly for the production of oil, which is rich, beautiful and fragrant much like wine. The color, aroma and flavor of olive oils depend on factors like the variety of olive, the location and soil qualities, the general environment, olive ripeness, harvesting methods, length of time between harvest and pressing, and the pressing technique used. Olive oil is flammable and burns well. Most of the world’s supply is produced from olives grown in Spain, Italy and Greece, but olive oils are also produced in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, elsewhere in the Mediterranean Basin, and in California.

Olive oil has been a staple of the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years and, today, its popularity is growing rapidly in other parts of the world. It is one of the most versatile oils for cooking and it enhances the taste of many foods. It is an excellent alternative to butter or margarine as a condiment or for use in food preparation. Olive oils are graded by production method, acidity content and flavor. The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) sets quality standards that most olive producing countries use (except the United States). Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat which accounts for 55% to 85% of an olive oil’s content.

There are three basic types of olive oils: extra virgin, virgin and pure olive oil. ‘Extra virgin’ is the top grade. This oil has less than 1% acidity, the olives have been picked and pressed the same day, and the oil has a strong, green color with a perfect aroma. Essentially, extra virgin olive oil should smell and taste just like the olive from which it came from. ‘Virgin’ olive oil is the next grade, with less than 2% acidity with good color and aroma. The final grade is ‘pure’ olive oil, much lighter in color with little or no aroma. Pure olive oil is the result of a blend of virgin olive oil and refined oil generally extracted from olive pulp, skin and/or pits.

Olive oil retains its best quality in the year it is produced, unlike wine that may require several years to reach its peak. One basic thing to remember about olive oil is that it is constantly oxidizing as a result of age, heat, air and exposure to light. It is best to store olive oil in a dark glass bottle or stainless steel container in a dark place, slightly cooler than room temperature. The container should be tightly closed when not in use. Olive oil cannot be refrigerated, for the condensation from cooling mixes with the oil and makes the final result less flavorable. Olive oil is like sunshine captured in food, with many health benefits.

Olive oil helps in blood circulation by preventing arteriosclerosis and its attendant risks, high blood pressure, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure and brain hemorrhages. Olive oil improves the working of the stomach, pancreas, intestines and liver, and prevents the formation of gallstones. It protects and tones the epidermis with its Vitamin E content and its antioxidant effect, and it is particularly useful in the prevention of skin lesions and for reducing the effects of ageing. It has also become known for use in the prevention and control of diabetes. Recent studies demonstrate that the glucose levels of healthy people drops by up to 12% when they consume olive oil. Olive oil stimulates growth and enhances minerals in our body by the absorption of calcium. It protects against certain tumors (breast, prostate, colorectal). Even the astronauts’ diet was changed to include olive oil after the discovery that it increases protection against radio activity. Due to its composition and digestibility, olive oil is also used in baby foods. The antioxidants in olive oil helps temper some of the effects of ageing,especially cerebral ageing, and in some experiments it has been observed to increase life expectancy. When used as primary fat, it produces a drop in LDL cholesterol, the ‘harmful cholesterol’, without dropping the level of HDL, the ‘good cholesterol’.

Because no two batches of olive oil are the same, tasting is important. Inferior oil may ruin the flavor of food, but good oil will enhance the flavors without overpowering the food. It is always best to taste olive oil first before it is used in cooking or in salads to ensure that the flavor is pleasing and that it will work for the specific dishes you have planned.

Olive oil is used in marinating meat, fish and poultry. Instead of serving butter with bread, olive oil can be used as a dipping. Olive oil prevents butter from burning. Light olive oil is ideal for baked goods because of its subtle flavor. When using olive oil for deep-frying, food should be as dry as possible before it enters the hot oil to prevent splattering. Olives can be used as sandwich fillings, and give dull ingredients a little flavor and variety. Nutrition, flavor and colorcan be added to spaghetti sauce by stirring in chopped olives.

Olives ignited a Mediterranean love for a loosely defined fantasy of casual, healthful, warm and intimate existence, comfortable for the stylish and accessible for the striving. Traveling with taste is the slogan of Mediterranean life and it’s just what we consider to be the best way of going through countries. A Spanish proverb says that the belly rules the mind; if so, a century old taste of the olive and its oil will surely cure dead cells of the present. Green and black olives, liquid gold,editerranean life, Vincent van Gogh’s olive trees..., Oh! How remarkable the olive.