Spotlight on: Olives

The olive tree was domesticated in the Near East about the fourth millennium B.C. and there is evidence of olives being cultivated in pharaonic Egypt, though the Greek geographer Strabo observed they only grew in Alexandria.

Olives were a staple for the average Greek and Roman, and they were usually stored in the dark by layering them with fennel in jars filled with brine. Olive oil must be stored in the dark and with little or no contact with air. They were also used in a popular dip, which, according to the Roman author Cato, was made by pitting the olives, choping them up and then marinating them in oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue and mint.

In Arabic, olives are known as zaytūn (زيتون) and in the medieval culinary tradition its fruit was mostly used for its oil, and less as an ingredient. They were often consumed as a side or snack, seasoned (mutabbal) and preserved in water and salt. Olives were used far more in the Muslim West (al-Andalus and North Africa) than in the East, often also to decorate dishes, or in the stuffing of meat dishes. Olive oil, too, was used far more in the Maghrib, in contrast with the sheep’s tail fat used in the Near East.

Green olives were considered to have a large number of benefits, including as an aphrodisiac. The best are the unripe ones; when salted, they strengthen the stomach, but cut the appetite, and are harmful to the lungs, which can be remedied wth honey.

Black olives are quickly digested. The best types are those that are reddish, rather than entirely black. As they arouse the appetite, they should be eaten before the meal. Mountain olives came highly recommended because they were appetizing and useful against sciatica. They should be eaten in the middle of the meal, with vinegar.

olives in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal

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