Pleasures and Pitfalls of Olive Oil

Recently, at a local farmers market, I stopped at an olive oil display and was transported – in memory – to my first encounter with the mystique of locally-produced olive oils. I learned that today, in Texas, there is not a “lone olive ranch” in the Lone Star state, but several. It seems this state is better suited for black oil than olive oil, but with time, luck and persistence, some olive ranchers are making a go of it. Texas A&M explains that climate is a limiting factor.

The oil pressed from trees has a long, rich history, and was commonly known as the “gift of the gods” by ancient civilizations. There is a bit of doubt about which gods first introduced olive oil to humans, and where exactly, but no doubt at all about its continuing popularity among Mediterranean peoples. That’s how I first was introduced to its wonders.

It was decades before the Mediterranean Diet became codified; EVOO, at the time, was not in the vocabulary of most chefs. But, even then, olive oil was something special among the “initiated.”

Photo by Adrienne Cohen
Photo by Adrienne Cohen

I have written about olive oil in terms of its natural properties, and as a regional, historical and cultural component of diet and tradition. The following piece first was published on Yahoo Contributor Network March 3, 2013. It was prompted by a news story confirming the health benefits of olive oil.

I’d like to share it again (with minor changes and updates):

Eating Well, Staying Healthy Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Many years ago, while vacationing at a Caribbean Island resort, my husband and I met a vivacious Italian couple at dinner. They were older, by decades, than we were at the time, but just as active, full of curiosity and fun to be with. They were swimmers, reef explorers and divers, and had come to enjoy the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. We met and talked, and because we had lived in France and traveled in Europe, we shared our experiences with them; they asked us about our life in the United States. We found we had much in common, despite the differences in age and geography.

One night at dinner, we tasted what that Italian gentleman called his “secret of long life.”

Olive Oil

Pressed from olives grown on his trees on his land, and carried from his home in travel flasks, he passed it around the resort’s community table for all to sample, and to savor, with our bread. I still recall the color, the scent and the flavor of that olive oil. The couple was justifiably proud of the golden elixir.

As “20-somethings,” we were enthralled. We were captivated by the setting; by the sun and the sea, by the activities and the bountiful food. We were charmed by the company. This pair

Olive Grove, Tuscany' Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr
Olive Grove, Tuscany’
Photo by Davide Rizzo via Flickr

of free-spirited, fit, fun grandparents enjoyed life every bit as much as we did. They were only too happy to meet new friends and share good times, good conversation, good food and abundant wine.

This incident occurred before the current popularity of all things Mediterranean, including the diet. On vacation, we two laid aside moderation: We overdid the activity as well as the food, the sun and the drink; and we paid the price upon our return home.

Not so our Italian friends. They maintained their routine. A simple breakfast of bread, with the requisite olive oil, and cheese; perhaps a soft-boiled egg, and black coffee. For lunch, a simple salad, with fish or fresh vegetables, fruit and bread, with olive oil. Whole olives, too, if they were available.

They walked, they swam, they dove; they relaxed.

Olives ready to pick Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr
Olives ready to pick
Photo by Jocelyn Kinghorn, Flickr

And then dinner — long, multi-course dinners. Soup, appetizer, entrée, roasted vegetables, salad — and bread. Always with the olive oil. Good conversation, much laughter. Much wine. And then dessert.

No, we never saw them again. But we never forgot that olive oil.

When I heard on ABC News that new findings confirm that the benefits offered by the “Mediterranean Diet,” in particular its emphasis on daily consumption of olive oil, include an astounding 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk, I thought of those Italian friends from long ago. I doubt that they are traveling this earth still, some 30-plus years later. But I would wager that they did so for many years following our meeting, always with enthusiasm, with smiles and laughter, and with olive oil.

Note: Now that I have discovered, and confirmed, that olive trees grow in Texas, I am planning an upcoming visit to the groves. I’m really looking forward to exploring the modern process of producing that “divine” oil.

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