Olive oil…older than man!

Olive oil…older than man!

Olive oil..older than man!

Considered to have the health-giving powers of a magic elixir, even called liquid gold by some, olive oil has been available to humanity since pre-history. The oldest olive tree in the world is estimated to be the ancient Olive Tree of Vouves located in the village of Ano Vouves on the island of Crete and, at some 4,000 years old, perhaps more, is believed to be the oldest olive tree in the world which still produces highly-prized olives. It’s exact age cannot be verified using radioisotopes as the tree’s heartwood has been lost through the centuries but no surprise nevertheless that the venerable tree has been declared a Natural Heritage Monument and  that a museum with its details has been opened closeby.

Crete’s Ancient Olive Tree of Vouves

The olives that the ancient tree produces, together with the olives from the many other trees in the area which are 2,000 and more years old, are thought to be unchanged from the olives produced by the area at the start of the Iron Age and probably in its earliest days, the Bronze Age

The fossil evidence indicates the olive tree had its origins some 20–40 million years ago, with fossilized leaves of Olea dated about 37,000 BP (before present) being found in palaeosols (fossil soils) in the Mediterranean region, especially around Thira on  the volcanic Greek of Santorini.  Imprints of larvae of olive whitefly Aleurolobus (Aleurodes) olivinus were found on the leaves, the same insect being commonly found today on olive leaves, with other leaves  found on Santorini dating back to 60,000 BP, making them the oldest known olives from the Mediterranean.

The edible olive has been enjoyed by humans for some 5,000, or more, years, going back to the early Bronze Age (3150 to 1200 BC) with the origin of early human use of the olive being traced to the Levant, based on the evidence of written tablets, olive pits, and wood fragments found in ancient tombs, in the area that now corresponds to Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean Basin.

Green or black?

The olive, botanical name Olea europaea, meaning “European olive”, is a species of small tree in the family Oleaceae, which although found traditionally in the Mediterranean Basin is now cultivated not only in all the countries of the Mediterranean but also in South America, South Africa, India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the United States. Olea europaea is the type species for the genus Olea, a plant family  which also includes species such as lilacs, jasmine, forsythia, and the true ash trees Fraxinus.

Trees cultivated for production  begin to produce olives about three years after planting with the first commercial crop expected in year four with some 90% of all harvested olives being turned into oil, while about 10% is used for table olives. The colour of an edible olive (green or black) is based on when an olive is pickled and preserved – green olives are unripe, while black olives are ripened before being harvested..both are usually soaked in lye, the liquid from soaked wood ash,  and then cured in brine to reduce bitterness. The olive is now  one of the four basic ingredients, the other three being wheat for bread, pasta and couscous, the grape for wine, and the tomato for salads,  in the Mediterranean diet now so well-known for being substantially the world’s healthiest form of eating.

The Upper Rock, one of Gibraltar’s Natural Parks

In Gibraltar, although the Upper Rock in the past has been tree-covered, most of the trees were felled for fuel during the Great Siege of Gibraltar between 1779 and 1783. Nevertheless, the most common trees surviving today is the wild olive, and the carob,  with the most common tree in the Alameda Botanic Gardens also being the wild olive, producing small white flowers in summer followed by small black olives in winter which although too bitter for human consumption is a favourite food of wintering birds visiting Gibraltar.

The Gibraltar Chronicle reported in 2019 that environmental activist and volunteer Bart Van Thienen had investigated  a new spot of Gibraltar’s natural habitat,  the Genoese Battery area, where he believes stands the largest olive tree in Gibraltar, approximately 20 metres high with a circumference of over four meters and “has spent weeks rescuing what he reckons to be the oldest olive tree in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve from a certain death ..although unsure why the tree is there, he assumes like other nearby olive trees it has self-seeded. Mr Van Thienen said he does not know the age of this tree, but that dating of a  smaller tree nearby was estimated at 250-300 years old.”

Stop the aging

The vitamin E found in olives  works to  neutralize free radicals in body fat – free radicals are the ones responsible for rusting, aging, your body, so use fresh high quality extra virgin olive oil as one of the primary sources of fat in your diet to let the antioxidants it contains fight off the rusting, and give yourself an increased chance of  avoiding coronary heart disease caused by plaque-clogged arteries.

Back in the 1950’s the ground-breaking medical “Seven Countries Study” drew attention to Greece’s low rate of the coronary heart disease (CHD), which leads to heart attack, the number one killer of humans globally.Often referred to as the study “in search of Heart Attacks” it  came to several important conclusions related to CHD, the main one being that death rates from CHD can be predicted by knowledge of the average serum cholesterol. Greece was the clear winner in all the studies, even though they were not expected to do well because of their high rate of smoking, hypertension, a high rate of obesity and other CHD risk factors, especially on the island of Crete, which turned out to have the lowest death rate by CHD of all the countries studied, including all of Greece.

Gibraltar’s calentita

The study concluded that the consumption of olives and olive oil can drastically reduce the presence/buildup of serum cholesterol, now well-known to be a cause of CDC because it builds up as artery-blocking plaque. Olives do contain fat, but it’s the healthy monounsaturated kind which has been found to shrink the risk of atherosclerosis and increase good cholesterol. Olives may be good to eat every day, in moderation, but watch out for the increase in salt if the olives come packaged in saltwater as their resulting high sodium (salt) content means that whole olives won’t count towards your 5-a-day. but pure cold first-press (extra virgin) olive oil is still the liquid gold that makes the Mediterranean diet the one that will improve the expectations of us all for a long and healthy life.

..and maybe if more olive trees take hold on the Rock  then Gibraltar one day will also have its own supply of enough of the health-giving liquid gold to turn Gibraltar into the Crete of the Southern Mediterranean… in the meantime Gibraltar can continue to enjoy the benefits of olive oil with the  way its used it since the 16C..mixed with specially-prepared chickpea flour and served up as the national dish, calentita.

Feature article by Jon Lewes