By Alison Peake

    There was a place in time, in living memory (read in my lifetime), that the only olive oil available in Melbourne was a nasty unrefined product purchased at the chemist and only suited to medicinal purposes.

    Olive oil was found alongside a foul concoction labelled cod liver oil. Both were used in a variety of tortures for children which included a weekly dose of a tablespoon of cod liver oil or olive oil heated on a spoon as a treatment for earache. The only positive version of Olive Oil at the time was a cartoon character; Popeye’s girlfriend.

    Times have changed and with the advent of migrants from the Mediterranean we were finally introduced to the advantages of olive oil as a valued food stuff. No pantry would now be complete without a bottle of EVOO for salad dressings and we have even come so far as to eat the actual fruit. We actually now know what extra virgin olive oil is and appreciate the difference in taste as well as the health benefits.

    Olives have a long and venerable history going back thousands of years in Greece, Italy and the Middle East The oldest trees, found in Lebanon, are purported to be 6,000 years old with others in Jerusalem and Malta also estimated at 5,000 and 2,000 years. The uses of the oil stretch from culinary to cosmetic and include uses as varied as a lubricant, furniture polish or even to prevent fur balls in cats. Greeks and Romans anointed themselves in olive oil and it is still a valued commodity in the cosmetic industry for its value as a moisturiser and as a vital ingredient in soaps.

    Back to their uses in the kitchen. You might be surprised to know that olives are classified as a stone fruit so are close relatives of peaches, mangoes, cherries and almonds. They are high in antioxidants and vitamin E and good for heart health.

    In season from late May to July there are many different varieties, some black and some green when ripe This can be confusing if you are deciding when they should be cropped, as they all start green and some later turn black when they ripen. Taken straight off the tree they are inedible but they can be brined for eating or crushed for olive oil. Brining olives is quite an art and requires weeks of changes of salt solutions to draw out the bittering agents in the fruit.

    Some varieties are only suitable for table olives and others only for oil so getting to know your olive varieties is an important part of learning the best way to process them.

    Find olives and olive oil and ask the experts at Slow Food Melbourne farmers’ markets at Spotswood and West Footscray 4th and 2nd Saturdays of the month. Check us out on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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