Review of ‘Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit’

Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit
Mort Rosenblum
North Point Press

Olives is a literate and lively story of a tree, the fruit and the oil it yields, and the robust and colorful characters who make their living from this most Mediterranean of crops. This is not a scholarly book--Rosenblum is a journalist whose interest in olives was inspired by a collection of neglected trees on the property of a house he bought in southern France--but every page conveys the author's admiration for the "remarkable little drupe" that invigorates so many people's lives.

The book hops from small groves on the sun-bleached hills of Palestine to vast orchards on the plains of Spain, from the tangle of overgrown trees behind the author's house in Provence to phantom plantings in Sicily, whose only yield is a harvest of subsidies from the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels. With no index, glossary or maps, the author's odyssey is sometimes difficult to follow. But his observations, anecdotes, recipes and drawings are so engaging that in the end the absence of traditional guideposts doesn't seem to matter.

Rosenblum describes planting and pruning, picking and pressing, taste and trade, and the intricacies of a market where the only thing protecting consumers is faith in the producer they buy from. He recites a dreary litany of things that can go wrong in growing and processing olives, and revels in the rich strong taste of the fresh-pressed oil when everything in the harvest has gone right. He conveys the flavor of life in those sunny lands where olives have "sustained family after family for thousands of years."

At the heart of this tale, like the sturdy trunk of an ancient tree, is Rosenblum's unabashed judgment that the old ways are better. Traditional presses, he thinks, make better oil than modern centrifuges. Handpicking is better for olives than harvesting them with mechanical shakers. The carefully pruned and tended trees of small-scale producers in Tuscany and Provence are better than the full-foliaged trees of Spain or the industrial-scale plantations he saw in Greece.

To Rosenblum olive oil represents far more than a mere agricultural commodity. Yes, he reports, it must contain less than 1 percent oleic acid before it can be labeled "extra virgin." Taste is enormously important, and he even admits to appreciating elegant packaging for its own sake. But ultimately, it is an oil's individuality that affects him most--its distinctive color, clarity, flavor and bite. "I loved the oil," he says of an award-winning French product refined with precise techniques and the finest modern equipment, "but I missed the passion."

Rosenblum's own passion is founded on the olive's historic connection to Mediterranean peoples and landscapes. Ancient presses and broken amphorae highlight the olive's role in prehistory. References from Sappho, Pliny and Cato show its importance in classical Greece and Rome. Modern recipes and statistics (in Greece, "they average twenty liters a year for every man, grandmother, and infant") emphasize the significance of this fruit in contemporary Mediterranean cultures and cuisines. And his description of how he accomplishes his own harvest--"find a few friends who have forgotten their Tom Sawyer and invite them down for the holidays"--offers a clever reminder of the communal spirit that has been central to the olive-growing tradition over the centuries.

Still, the essence that dominates these pages is the strong, sharp spice of obsession. As a result, while Rosenblum's tour of oliviana contains its share of Homeric elements, the literary figure this book brings to mind most strongly is Coleridge's albatross-fixated ancient mariner.

The book's cover, with a fat black olive standing in for the letter O, and a Van Gogh grove of olive trees fronting a luminescent green sky, will grab the attention of at least one in three passing along a bookstore aisle. Those browsers who stop, who open the book and then pause to read a passage or two, will find themselves drawn in by a story they would hardly have expected to hear. It is a story that is rich with flavor and full of passion, and just as with olives and their oil, these are the things that matter most.

John R. Alden tasted nine olive oils on display at a local delicatessen before writing this review and, in the end, bought three.

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