"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority ... the Constitution was made to guard against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Noah Webster

"There is no worse tyranny than forcing a man to pay for what he does not want just because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Long Live, O' Live, Olive

Our new olive tree

The nicest birthday gift I received this year came from my lovely wife, Twyla. I consider it ours, and not mine. Every time I walk past it, it makes me smile.  I think of how much joy it will bring me to care for it and shape it as it grows.  Olive trees are one of the ideal trees for pruning and shaping.  Olive trees, the fruit, and the oil, all have special meaning. Now, I've got this cute little Manzanilla olive tree in the back yard, in a pot.  We won't put it in the ground, unfortunately, but you'll understand why.  The olive tree is known to botanists as Olea europaea, with six basic subspecies and over twenty well known cultivars, each having unique qualities and flavors.

Olive trees may seem like a paradox.  They are extremely tough compared to most plants in the entire plant kingdom, yet severe enough cold can kill them.  In fact, they are more likely to be killed by too much water or too much cold and yet they are known to survive severe drought and even fire. A mature and healthy olive tree can be chopped down to the ground and its root system will put up new shoots and likely survive and thrive.  Same thing can happen if you burn one of these trees to the ground.  Olive trees don't like a fully tropical environment.  They prefer a moderately cold period in order to flower and set fruit well.  Apparently it needs to get below 45° F for some time.  Perhaps someone could adapt one of the many olive species to an always warm climate, but why bother?

Olive wood vase
Once olive trees become well established in the right environment they can grow very old.  In several places around the Mediterranean Sea, there are olive trees that are over 2,000 years old.  It is undeniable that some of the trees on the Mount of Olives outside the old city walls of Jerusalem are at least two millennia old. Olive wood from the Holy Land and wherever it grows is used to make all kinds of things. From furniture to eating utensils and even small communion or kiddush cups.  We happen to have a couple such kiddush cups from Israel. Most people probably agree that it would be a sin to use any kind of stain on the wood before sealing it. The wood is just too beautiful with all the variances of grain color and naturally occurring patterns.  Of course, there is no reason to seal any wood that is used for food or beverage consumption.  Some may think that it's just a coincidence that wood still makes the best cutting surface for food.  Not just because wood won't dull a knife edge quickly the way other materials might, but because there are natural substances in wood that are powerfully anti-microbial.  This is true even with very old cutting boards.
A Torah Scroll

Very fine olive wood is often selected to be used for the spindles upon which a Kosher Torah scroll is wound.

Every part of the olive tree is used.  The wood, the leaves, and the fruit which is classified as a drupe.  The simple way to think of a drupe is "stone fruit," meaning it has a hard pit in the middle of a fleshy, edible fruit that contains the actual seed inside of that inner hard shell.  Peaches and cherries are examples of drupes. The various cultivars of olives can be described as having flavors and aromas anywhere from fragrant and fruity to buttery and meat-like.  How's that for a range of tastes?

The olive tree is nothing like a conifer or a holly, but it too, is an evergreen.  This is a big benefit if you live where the temperatures make it necessary to move a potted specimen indoors to protect from hard freezing. Unless you allow the tree to get stressed very much, it's leaves don't turn brown and drop off.  Olive trees don't mind frost.  Damage does not occur to the tender parts of the tree, such as new branch and twig growth, unless the temperature gets below 22° F and it takes several hours below 15° to do serious damage to the thicker parts of the tree.  This is why it's a good idea to keep an olive tree in a nice pot and be prepared to move it inside if you live where it gets consistently colder than those temperatures, as we do here.  An olive tree can produce a fairly decent amount of fruit in a five to eight gallon sized pot.  Fruit production will depend on the species and cultivar, weather conditions and the level of care given the tree.

Olive trees hate to have their "feet wet."  Not only do olive trees produce better and tastier olives in drier conditions, they are very susceptible to fungal disease if they are planted in very rich soil that stays moist all the time.  The conditions that are great for most vegetables and other plants are totally wrong for olives.  They prefer rocky, sandy, almost consistently dry earth to grow well in and produce the richest tasting olives.  When the trees are just getting started they need some care and better conditions, but the older they get, and the more trials they endure,  the tougher they get.  Is there a lesson here, or what?

The olive leaves are now harvested because it has been discovered that they have anti-aging, immune system stimulating, and anti-biotic effects.  Of course, it has been known since the Garden of Eden that olive oil is an anti-biotic and has many healing qualities. But actual clinical research has shown that  olive leaf extracts are proven to reduce blood pressure, fight fungi infections, and reduce inflammation.  A fresh extract of the leaves was recently shown to have more than double the antioxidant qualities than that of green tea extract.  On top of that, it had 400% of the vitamin C content.

Among natural medicine practioners, olive leaf is used to fight all kinds of viral infections, including colds and flu, yeast infections, and ailments such as Epstein-Barr, shingles, and herpes.  Consumption of both the oil and the leaf extract reduce blood levels of low density lipoproteins or LDL cholesterol.

Ancient olive press
Olives are one of the few fruits that are good to eat whether picked green or fully ripe.  They can be preserved in pickling brine or in their own oil.  The process of extracting the oil  would take an entire post by itself, and perhaps the day will come when we might want to experiment in learning how to do just that.  In ancient times it was done by grinding the olive flesh into paste and then crushing it between mats of palm frond or grass mats, using pits carved out of rock and using small cranes with counterbalances to load stones on top of the mats.  The liquid is crushed out of the meat of the fruit and then the watery part separates from the oil.  Olives that are grown for their oil have up to half of their weight in oil.

Somebody is probably wondering about the designation "Extra-Virgin" for olive oil.  How can something be "extra-virgin?"  Kind of like being "extra-dead."  You either are or you aren't.  Actually it developed as a grade and has a very specific meaning.  Not only is it from the very first pressing of olives, but it has to have a certain subjective grade of aroma and taste, as well as a maximum level of fatty acid content no greater than 0.8 gram per 100 grams.  The first pressing of the olive oil was what Adonai commanded be for use in lighting the menorah and menorot in the Temple, and for use in formulating anointing oil.  In case you want to know, olive oil in Hebrew is "shemen zaiyeet" or "oil of olives."

I hope that in the future, I will be able to share pictures as I cultivate this tree and more like it.  The blooming and fruiting, the pruning and care.  By the way, if you live in the panhandle of Florida or Southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and can plant such trees in an area where it can stay well drained after rain, you might consider planting as many olive trees as you can.  I know I would.

Shalom Y'all

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