12 Dec

Olive, the food of the gods

By Rasheeda Bhagat,

Any visitor to Athens, Greece, soon finds out that the olive tree and everything to do with it, be it the leaves, branches, olives or olive oil, is almost a kind of cult here. Considered the food of Greek Olympic gods, in Mediterranean culture the olive oil has been considered sacred for over 4,000 years.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the Goddess of Wisdom Athena “bestowed upon mankind her divine gift — the olive oil tree”. Even in modern Greek tradition, the olive and its products form an integral part of a man’s life through all the important cycles of his life.

Ancient Greek literature describes how after the birth of a child, olive leaves are burnt to give fragrance to the room; olive oil was/is used in the christening ceremony, and as the child went through school, the elders would bless him/her thus: “Just as the olive tree puts down roots and the wind does not overturn it, so may the alphabet be rooted in your mind”.

With the beneficial dietary and health benefits of olive oil being proved by medical research, the rest of the world — including Indians — are waking up to the need of including olive oil in their diet. In Greece, to have sufficient olive oil in your house was always considered the sign of a self-sufficient household.

In a snatch of Greek poetry that the Ministry of Culture quotes in its promotional material, the child tells his mother: “Don’t send me to America mother/I don’t want dollars/ How can I tell you?/ I want olives, bread, onions and the one I love.”

Well, at the Alzati, a Cretan restaurant in Athens, where we dined on our first evening in Greece, there is much more than that on offer. The restaurant chef, considered one of the best in the country, says that he concentrates on the “healthy aspects” of Cretan cuisine and makes his food in a “simple and healthy way”.

Apart from the delicious white wine and the strong after-dinner “digestive” liqueur that one is cautioned to consume in moderation, olives and olive oil form a crucial part of the meal. Green and black, plain and salted olives are served on the table.

Only two journalists invited by the International Olive Oil Council, our host for the evening, have arrived yet, and with the Canadian journalist being a gourmet and nutrition expert delectable starters are ordered. You soon realise that the Greek salad and starters that you’ve had in Chennai are not a patch of the fare on offer here.

Representatives from the Ministry of Rural Industries and Food are guests too, and one of the representatives explains that Italy — obviously a keen competitor — and the largest exporter of olive oil in the world “exports more than what it produces; this is the extraordinary thing about Italy”. It is well known that Italy imports a lot of Greek olive oil in bulk, mixes it with local produce “to improve the quality”, packages and exports it to the rest of the world. “We are not very good with the marketing”, rues the ministry official.

For Greece, the EU is the biggest market, even though domestic consumption, at about 20 kg per capita per year, is the highest in the world. Lamb and rooster, an exotic rice dish that resembles the Risotto, lamb in honey sauce, meat and cheese pie, all of them come in quick succession and it is difficult to find space on the table.

As more dishes are served, beef and pork in all kinds of exotic combinations, one decides to stick to the heavenly salad Aragula (a kind of lettuce) with graviera (cheese), honey, pomegranate and, of course, olives.

One washes down the guilt with some white wine and the optimistic reasoning that the olive oil and table olives will take care of the triglycerides!

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