By Alison Peake
Olive oil has had a place in culinary history for thousands of years. Considered by many to be liquid gold it was literally the source of wealth and prosperity in many ancient cultures.
For the Ancient Greeks and Romans it was not only a kitchen staple but was also used in their bathhouses and sporting tournaments. Prized for its properties as a muscle relaxant that helped prevent injuries, athletes would coat their muscles with olive oil to retain and enhance their suppleness before training or competing. It was so valuable in Ancient Greece that Olympic athletes were awarded not medals but olive oil sourced from sacred trees on the rocks of the Acropolis. No one, except the winners, were allowed to possess this oil.
During the Ottoman era in Turkey olive oil wrestling was a national sport and athletes in leather breeches covered themselves in oil to make it harder for their opponents to get a grip.
In the modern world the first cold pressed oil (AKA Extra Virgin or EVOO) is considered a premium salad oil. Other oils from olives have many uses in cooking including baking, frying and even for ice-cream. Regarded as a healthy choice it’s a staple in the Mediterranean diet, famous for its health benefits.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of olive varieties all over the world but only about 150 are regularly cultivated for eating and making olive oil. Different olive varieties taste different due to many factors, including soil and weather conditions, when they are harvested and polyphenol content. They have some pretty exotic names reflecting their origins but the most commonly available varieties in Australia are Arbequina, Barnea, Barouni, Coratina, Correggiola, Frantoio, Hojiblanca, Jumbo Kalamata, Kalamata, Koroneiki, Leccino, Manzanillo, Pendulino, Picholine, Picual, Sevillano, and Verdale.
So what if you could have this liquid gold for free?
If you look around you will find there are a multitude of local olive trees growing in back yards and on nature strips, but many are never cropped and go to waste.
The Urban Harvest project in collaboration with Slow Food Melbourne is shining a light on wasted food resources locally and creating programs to encourage the sharing of local produce and learn how to best use it.
Knowing what olives you have and what varieties are suitable for oil or eating is critical so we called on an expert.
Lina Siciliano from Villa Varapodi knows her olives well. She’s grown, pressed, and processed many varieties with her family at their estate in East Keilor for decades. Demonstrating the brining technique for creating olives to eat and explaining which olives have a good oil content Lina is helping us know how best to use what we have in our own neighbourhood.
To find out more follow Slow Food Melbourne and Urban Harvest Local on Facebook, or ask us at our markets in Spotswood or West Footscray.
In the meantime start looking for local olive trees so you are ready for next season.