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  • Writer's pictureWill Lyons

Food of the Gods - A Pitted History of Olives

Olives. Nature's Marmite. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't deny the impact this remarkable fruit has made on culture and cuisine the world over.

Perfect as a bar snack or starter and with countless other uses, all of them healthy, olives are as versatile as they are valuable to any chef worth their salt.

They're an absolute staple here at Ethos, and I can't imagine our menu without them.

So whether they're one of your faves or you'd run a mile rather than eat one, here's a short celebration of the humble yet mighty olive.

For centuries, the olive and its tree have symbolised purity, glory, abundance and power. Which is a bit like how I feel when doing my morning mantras in the mirror.

The olive branch itself is, of course, a universal symbol of hope. This is why in 1946, the United Nations adorned its flag with a world map and two olive branches. Although, the way the world is at the moment, I'm not sure it's working, in all honesty!

Away from symbolism, today we see olive oil as a delicious dressing and a food cupboard essential.

However, the luscious liquid is considered sacred in many cultures and is used in religious ceremonies worldwide. Not in place of wine, I hope.

The olives we serve at Ethos are naturally only the finest variety from Kalamata in Greece. And like so many words we use in English today, the word olive actually comes from Greek.

The word is a combination of the Proto-Greek, ἐλαίϝα (elaíwa) and Classic Greek, ἐλαία (elaía) 'olive fruit; olive tree' and, funnily enough, the pronunciation sounds like what a Scouser would call someone who's been caught telling fibs. You're Eh-liar!

The olive's link to Greece dates back so far that the fossilised olive trees discovered in Santorini are estimated to be 50,000 - 60,000 years old!

Mind-boggling when considering that Neanderthal man was likely still wandering the earth back then.

Though it was in the 16th century BC that the Phoenicians began spreading olives throughout the Greek isles. That's 16,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Christ.

The tree would eventually make its way to mainland Greece somewhere between the 14th and 12th centuries BC, but it wasn't only its quality as foodstuff that made the olive so revered.

Its oil was also used as a perfume (it probably had a nicer smell than Thierry Mugler's Angel), and the Ancient Greeks would lather the stuff on their hair and bodies for grooming (not that kind of grooming...). But Greeks covered in grease. The irony!

Kings and athletes were anointed with it too, and olive oil was the original fuel for the eternal flame of the Olympic games.

Inevitably, there is also a link to olives being a Food of The Gods.

According to the myth, the Greek Gods Athena and Poseidon battled to control the capital.

However, Poseidon's attempt to win over the mortals with his command of the seas made little impression. Instead, Athena's planting of a bountiful olive tree won them over. Some people are so easily pleased.

In any case, Athena was the victor, and the city was named in her honour. Legend has it that the original tree still stands at the Parthenon.

So, although the olive tree is native to the Mediterranean, and many countries claim to be the rightful home of the fruit, Greece's case is solid.

Not only are the Hellenic hotbed's geography and year-round sunlight perfect conditions for growing, but the quality of olives produced by Greece is second to none.

While countries like Italy and Spain are vocal about the quality of their olives, they don't come close to the Greek stuff.

Because a jaw-dropping 80% of Greece's olive oil qualifies as extra-virgin, making Greek olives as pure and unadulterated as a night watching Songs of Praise with Mother Teresa.

This is undoubtedly why Hippocrates - the father of modern medicine - was so obsessed with the stuff. He cited more than 60 medicinal and therapeutic uses for olive oil. Today, it's used to treat conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and blood pressure.

So there you have it. More than just food, the olive is magical, medicinal and mighty. And trust me, once you've tried the olives here, you'll agree that they're magnificently moreish too.