Delectable Mediterranean morsels
Greece, Spain and Italy are Europe’s main olive growing areas. The Spanish Nutrition Society recommends eating an average of 7 olives a day – an indication of just how healthy they are. We reveal what makes olives so beneficial to health and tell you everything else worth knowing about these luscious little morsels and the trees on which they grow.
The olive and its tree
The tree on which olives grow is Olea europaea, also known as the common olive tree. Well over 1,000 varieties of this tree grow within the Mediterranean region. An olive tree can live to well over 100 years old, making it one of the longest-living plants on Earth. The tree, which can grow up to 20 metres tall, flowers from April to June. It only bears its fruit from September or October onwards. It can take an olive tree up to 7 years from planting to bear its first fruits; before that, it produces only flowers. Once the tree fruits properly, however, it can bear up to 20 kg of olives each season. These fruits are often harvested manually, by stretching nets out under the trees and carefully beating the olives from the branches. Of course, there are some places where the fruits are still collected by hand. In Italy, this practice is known as brucate. Olives are packed with goodness, but this may be squandered if they are left sitting around for a long time. To prevent this, the fruits are usually processed within four hours of being harvested.
- ... protect against cardiovascular disease
- ... slow down skin ageing processes
- ... provide a supply of iron
- ... boost digestive health
Olives are hugely beneficial to our bodily health, skin and hair. Three-quarters of the fat contained in olives is monosaturated fatty acids, whose benefits include lowering cholesterol. They also guard against cardiovascular disease. What’s more, olives are packed with antioxidants, which mitigate the ageing effect of free radicals on skin. These valuable antioxidants include hydroxytyrosol, which has a cancer-inhibiting effect, beta carotene, which protects our skin and the retinas of our eyes against ultraviolet radiation, and lutein, which is also good for eyesight. It’s particularly important for vegetarians and vegans to maintain a good iron intake. Olives can certainly help with that. In order for your body to absorb as much iron as possible from olives, it’s best to consume them together with foods containing vitamin C, such as broccoli, camu camu or even oranges. Olives also provide lots of mineral salts like potassium and magnesium, along with fibre and vitamins, especially vitamin E.There’s are a couple of very good reasons why olives are often served as a hors d'oeuvre: they stimulate the appetite and help with digestion. They ensure that our bodies process any fats that we have consumed more effectively, thus improving the digestibility of our food. Green and black olives aren’t just different in colour; they also have a different nutritional breakdown. Green olives, which are bigger than the black varieties, have a higher water content and contain more mineral salts and fibre. Black olives, meanwhile, contain more monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants. This is reflected in their calorie count. Black olives clock in at 235 kcal per 100g, while green olives have only 140 kcal per 100g.But one thing is the same whether you’re talking about green or black olives, the whole fruit or just olive oil: it’s important not to heat it up too much, as excessive heat destroys the antioxidants.
Did you know?
- Olives aren’t actually vegetables! Like cherries or apples, they grow on trees that live for many years, so they are classed as fruits.
- When newly grown, all olives are green, even the black varieties. Their colour depends not just on the variety, but also on the time of year. The longer an olive is left to ripen, the darker it becomes. Olives can also take on a darker hue as the result of the way in which they are processed. The green table olives that we’re used to are harvested between September and December, before they are completely ripe. Olives are more of a yellowish-green when harvested and only fully ripen when they are processed. The later in winter they are harvested, the darker they will be.
- Olives cannot be eaten straight from the tree. Well, theoretically they can, but nobody would like the taste. This is because olives need to be ‘debittered’ to be palatable. The substance oleuropein is what makes olives bitter. Different processes are used to reduce the proportion of it within olives, depending on the variety and the growing region. Method 1: The olives are soaked for at least 2 weeks. Over those two weeks, the water must be changed at least twice a day. Method 2: The olives are lain in a lye solution, soaked for 8–10 hours, stirring occasionally, and then rinsed up to four times with water to remove the lye.
- Olives sold in the supermarket have been preserved beforehand. There are a number of methods for doing this, too. The three most common methods are: 1. steeping in salt; 2. steeping in brine; and 3. steeping in oil. Method 3 can be used for black olives and those that have previously been steeped in salt. It goes without saying that olive oil should be used for this. ;-)
- Not all of the black olives that you find in the supermarket are naturally black. Dried and pitted black olives, in particular, have often been artificially blackened with iron(II) gluconate (E579) and iron(II) lactate (E858). This must be shown on the list of ingredients and indicates that the olives are of poor quality.
- Olive oil’s smoke point is at 180 °C. Put simply, this means that it should not be allowed to get any hotter than that, otherwise all of the oil’s good ingredients will essentially be incinerated. When buying olive oil, you should also pay attention to how it has been produced. The healthiest olive oil is the cold-pressed kind – extra-virgin olive oil – as this retains all of the olive’s valuable natural substances.