Olives - The Giving Tree
Updated: Jun 26, 2019
The olive tree is truly a giving tree, as I wrote the title I thought I would do a quick Google search on what mythology has to say about such an ancient tree. A happy smile crept over my face as I read how the olive tree is known as the Greatest Gift. In ancient Greece there was a contest between Poseidon (God of Sea) and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom, how telling that the god of wisdom should be a woman) To find out who could provide the greatest gift to the new city. Poseidon’s gift of a spring of salty water was no match for the Olive Tree which was Antena’s gift to the new city that took her name.
This tree really is a gift, the fruit once cured or salted can be stuffed with all sorts of delicious flavours, turned into tapenade or added into salads and dishes for a burst of flavour. The leaves provide us with a potent anti-microbial remedy, it is my go to remedy for colds and flu. The wood makes the most beautiful tableware from bowls, vases to chopping boards. But really it is the oil that has been the trees greatest gift and most widely used.
What you may not know is that I have a deep personal passion for olives, in my late twenties I helped establish our family farm by planting 2,000 olive trees. 21 years later the farm now has new owners, a new name Waterleliejfontein and more olive trees. The main focus has been in producing an award winning extra virgin olive oil. When I visited recently I was so proud to see something I started more than 20 years ago looking so well cared for. I couldn’t resist sharing some of the benefits of including olive oil in a healthy diet.
Which olive oil?
Firstly, you really want to be using extra virgin olive oil, this is when the olives are picked ripe and cold pressed without the use of heat. This ensures that the oil retains all of it’s health benefits. What is interesting is that there is also an Early Harvest Olive Oil (EHOO) where olives are picked green and cold pressed. This is a bit of an obsession of Omeros Demetriou the owner of The Olive Branch Deli in Lifestyle on Kloof. This year he produced his first EHOO from Kalamata trees I planted!
Secondly, you would be crazy not to buy locally produced olive oil because there are now so many farms producing good quality olive oil. You ideally want oil that is fresh, try and use within 15 month from harvest.
Thirdly, you want to store your olive oil carefully in a cool, dark place and it should be brought in a glass bottle or tin so that it cannot get damaged from light.
Lastly, you don’t want to heat your olive oil up too much because then the oil gets damaged. Now growing up in a family where olive oil was used abundantly and Italian cooking always uses olive oil, it’s not easy for me not to use it for cooking. When I am sautéing I do it as a very low heat but generally it is recommended that you only use olive oil to finish off a dish.
In this regard I use it abundantly, my poor English husband cannot understand why almost every vegetable get’s a generous dosing of olive oil and a little sea salt. Lets face it olive oil makes everything taste better. I also love to marinate vegetables in it and it is the base of most of my salad dressings.
Olive oil has risen to fame because it is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean Diet, a diet that has been talked about for years as a healthy way to eat. Rich in vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, fish and a little meat, natural and unprocessed foods and of course olive oil. The Blue Zone diet just confirmed what we already knew, that some populations following a Mediterranean way of eating live longer. The Blue Zone researched why certain areas in the world had higher rates of their population living over 100. A healthy diet was just one of the factors that kept them alive, friendships, community, having a purpose and daily activity were other factors that made these people healthy into their 100's.
So what makes olive oil good for us? Certain compounds in olive oil were analysed and it is these that have health benefits.
Olive oil is a mono-unsaturated fatty acid and oleic acid is a name for one of these fatty acids, high amounts are found in olive oil. As a healthy fat oleic acid is important for the cell membranes allowing effective communication between our cells. It is also important for our brain function, since our brains are mostly made up of fatty acids.
Oleic acid helps hormones work better and like all fats is a good source of energy. It is also important for neurotransmitters, those chemicals that influence our mood (GABA, serotonin and dopamine) Another important health benefit of oleic acid is that it has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
A fatty acid called linoleic acid, also found in olive oil has moisturising properties which is why olive oil has been traditional used in natural skin moisturisers.
Polyphenols are a family of plant chemicals that act as potent anti-oxidants. They are what give olive oil it’s pungent bitter flavour. We need anti-oxidants to help reduce the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are made in the body and can also be from our environments, they have a damaging effect on the body and are linked to ageing and degenerative diseses. Antioxidants keep the body healthy and slow down the ageing process.
Polyphenols help reduce inflammation, dementia and alzhiemers, maintain a healthy heart (lower cholesterol and reduce high blood pressure) They may also assist with weight loss, metabolic syndrome and help insulin work better. While they are lots of foods that contain polyphenols olive oil contains a specific one called oleocanthal that gives that peppery flavour and is a particularly good anti-inflammatory.
What is interesting to note is that the EHOO (Early Harvest Olive Oil) is higher in polyphenols. Regular extra virgin olive oil has a polyphenol count of between 100 - 250 the EHOO that The Olive Branch Deli produced this year had a count of 403.
Other Health Properties
Olive oil has another compound called secoiridoids that can suppress gene expression and help slow ageing. It also contains high amounts of squalene which has anti-inflammatory properties and can aid tissue repair so where skin is damaged olive oil can be used. Even better olive leaves macerated in olive oil can be used topically to help to repair the skin.
Summing it Up
In case you were wandering if it really is worth investing in a good quality extra virgin olive oil, some of the reasons below may help make your mind up for you:
Protects the heart
Anti-inflammatory, inflammation is often at core of many illnesses
Keeps the brain healthy, preventing dementia and Alzheimers
Repairs damaged skin
Of course if you had to ask me which is my favourite olive oil I would have to be biased and say the oil from Waterleliefontein. And it isn’t just me who thinks so they have won SA Olive oil awards. If you want to get hold of some of this oil you can find it at a few selected shops one of them is The Olive Branch Deli otherwise you can contact them directly and order a box of four tins (4 litres), the box is beautiful and it feels like you are opening a lovely gift, the gift of the Olive Tree.