Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.
I was born and raised in Umbria, Italy, on my family’s ancient olive plantation. My father was half Irish, a fair-skinned, redheaded, stocky, sturdy, hardworking olive grove farmer. My mother, a petite, dark-haired Italian woman with piercing blue eyes, ran a charming bed-and-breakfast cottage. She served and sold homemade bread, cheese, vegetables, fruit, and olive oil. The days were long, but our fruits of labor were worth the efforts for the well-being of our family, the community, and the tourists who liked our cozy, rustic lifestyle on the Mediterranean.
One overcast, cool November morning in the kitchen with my mom, I learned the art of baking drop scones. I forgot to include the pale yellow liquid gold. My detail-oriented mother, a seasoned baker, mumbled, “Tsk-tsk” as she poured the liquid gold into the thick batter. When the scones were baked and the fruity scent filled the air of the kitchen, she dipped a warm scone full of olives and nuts into a beautifully decorated olive oil dish. She smiled and handed me the treat as a truce. In the real world, this rural picturesque scene is a dream of mine. While I would love to be an olive farmer’s daughter living in Europe, the truth of the matter is it’s not the real story of my roots.
In the fifties, I grew up in San Jose, California, a place once known for its plentiful prune tree orchards. Today, as a nature-loving Northern Californian who currently lives amid tall pine trees in South Lake Tahoe, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that within three hours of my mountain-style home—with rolling hills much like in Italy, Spain, and Greece—olive groves are growing and people are producing olive oil, known as liquid gold (coined centuries ago) in Mediterranean-type weather in the Golden State.
When I was in my late twenties, it was my dream to go to Europe. I dog-eared one of those Europe-on-a-shoestring-budget travel books and planned my trip. But I opted to go to graduate school instead. So, I never got to enjoy the exotic Mediterranean countries or taste the European cuisine—including its wide world of olive oil.
The closest I’ve come to Italy, the second largest producer of olive oil, is by watching the film Under the Tuscan Sun, which is about a divorced writing professor and book reviewer—played by Diane Lane—and based loosely on a novel created by Frances Mayes, who taught classes at my alumni college, San Francisco State University. With envy, I viewed her protagonist, Frances, learning to live and laugh again thousands of miles away from the San Francisco Bay Area. In Tuscany, where she relocates, it’s the eccentric, down-to-earth locals and observing an earthy harvest of olives (right outside her new home) that finds a place in her heart.
In the real world, I sit here in my study with a melting winter snow-covered ground outdoors in the California Sierras and fantasize about how wonderful it would be to live in Italy amid olive trees. But, whisking off in a plane to Europe isn’t going to happen for me today or tomorrow. Still, I will take you along with me to visit real people and real places where you will get a real flavor of the Mediterranean basin and of the healing powers of olive oil.
THE OLIVE YIELDS A POWERFUL OIL
Olive oil has been praised by people as one of Mother Nature’s most healthful fats, especially if it is extra virgin olive oil. And now, olive oil—and other healing oils—are making the news worldwide, and are here to stay in homes, restaurants, and even fast-food chains.
People from all walks of life—including some olive oil pioneers and contemporary medical experts—believe olive oil helps fight body fat and keeps blood pressure down as well as heart disease at bay. Olive oil is also known to help relieve colds and maintain healthy skin.
These days, well-known health gurus continue to tout olive oil, a timeless superfood, as have others I have mentioned in the past. I watched Dr. Mehmet Oz, for one, on The Dr. Oz Show praise liquid gold—and avocado oil to coconut oil. Chefs—not just Rachael Ray—use olive oil paired with other oils and fats in an array of dishes. And other masters of food and health have applauded the timeless benefits of olive oil, too.
Jean Carper, a leading authority on health and nutrition, points out that new Italian research finds olive oil contains antioxidants, similar to those in tea and red wine, that fight heart disease, including LDL cholesterol’s ability to clog arteries.
Dietician and nutrition consultant Pat Baird, author of The Pyramid Cookbook: Pleasures of the Food Guide Pyramid, touts the golden liquid, too. “I love the whole idea of olive oil’s versatility. I use it for baking, as well as salad dressings and sautéing. Olive oil has been around for a long time, and the more we know about it, the more we learn about its great contribution to good health.”