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H - 157 : Olive Trees - A Divine Present

We are used to see flags everywhere and believe we know how they look like. Until we are asked details. Is the red colour used for the Chinese and Swiss flag the same? How many stars does the European Union flag have? Are the colors in the Belgian and German flag really the same? We never look close enough to know these details.



The flag of Cyprus is a good example. Designed by a Turkish Cypriot in 1960 when the country became independent, It depicts the island in copper colour on a white background above two olive branches. The flag stands as a symbol for the island’s history (copper and olives) and its hoped-for political future: The Turkish and the Greek Cypriots represented by an olive branch each – an old symbol of peace on a white background. The hopes lasted only 14 years. In 1974 the country split and has not reunited since.

 

8'000 Years old Traces of Olive Oil were found in Galilee


That copper represents the country’s history is no surprise. We covered this in a previous blog. But why olives? In none of the sources I consulted was Cyprus mentioned as having a particular link to olives. It is neither a large olive oil producer in the Mediterranean. That title goes to Turkey, Italy, Tunisia and Spain. Nor is it the place where the oldest traces of olive oil were found. This happened in Ein Zippori in northern Israel, where 8’000-year-old terra cotta shards were discovered with olive oil residue. The site dates back to the chalcolithic age – in other words the copper age. We know that copper from Cyprus was widely traded and that the trade required sturdy ships for the heavy cargo. Would it be far-fetched to think that the traders brought olive trees back home?


Oxhide Copper Ingot from Cyprus from 1'200 BC in

weighting 20 kg the Metropolitan Museum New York

 

Be it as it may, local Cypriots think that olive trees are as old as their island. From Genetic analysis we know that olive trees were brought to Cyprus by 7’000 BC. By 2’000 BC they were commercially exploited. The neighboring Phoenicians who traded throughout the Mediterranean knew the island for its exquisite olive oil and its excellent wines. Phoenician mariners got around quite a bit so their judgement means something.

 

These several hundred year old Trees grow near Girne where our voyage starts this year


In ancient times, olive oil was extracted by putting olives between woven matts for squeeze. The crushing as practiced today was invented during Hellenistic times. It increased oil production many fold since the bulk of the oil is not in the flesh but in the seed. Crushing the entire olive produces a greenish paste which is then centrifuged to separate the oil from water and paste. The colour of fresh oil is a lush milky green. It has this wonderful, almost fruity taste which everybody should try at least once in a lifetime. When put to rest, gravity further separates the oil. The liquid gold, as Homer called it, sits on top of the dusty layer. The oil is ready for bottling. Most people prefer the golden, transparent oil which is so pleasing to the eye.  Personally, I go for the dusty, murky part. Its flavour is more fruity and stronger and it is ideal for salads and cold dishes.


Our fresh Olive Oil from Chantrou, November 2023


Olive oil had many more uses in antiquity than today. Using it for cooking was just one way. Oil was used for making soap, to clean skin and hair, but also for religious ceremonies and burning in oil lamps. Without olive oil, the nights in antiquity would have been dark. It is thus not surprising that olive oil fetched a high price in ancient markets. It sold twice as expensive as any other vegetable oil and was five times more expensive than wine.           

 

Cyprus with its sophisticated mining industry must have been a high consumer of olive oil. There were many port and mining towns where people did not live from agriculture any longer and could afford a more sophisticated cuisine. In crowded towns, having access to olive oil for personal hygiene is important for staying healthy and having a long live. It was certainly used for illumination at night as we know from the many findings of oil lamps.


Typical Breakfast in North Cyprus


Today, about 10% of Cyprus’ arable land is planted with olive trees. Some of them are 2’000 years old and still producing. Salamiou, a village in the south-west of the island has lots of them. Its western slopes are dotted with so many of these monumental trees that it gained a national reputation. Apparently, Apostles Paul and Barnabas had lunch in the village on their way to Pathos during their first mission. The seeds of the olives they ate and spit out grew into olive trees which are now considered sacred. Love the story – but it is unlikely to be true. Anybody who tried to plant olive seeds knows how demanding and frustrating the process is. Olive trees are best bought from nurseries and planted when a few years old.


Olive Trees on the Slopes of Salamiou - doubt that these are the 2'000 year old sacred Trees


Cypriots on both side of the internal border love their trees and – despite their political disagreements – are convinced that the island’s olive oil is the best in the world. The limestone soil is perfect; there is enough rain in the mountains; the climate is warm in winter and hot in summer. Not surprisingly, olive oil festivals in many villages are a firm part of the annual calendar. If you own the best olive oil in the world, you need to celebrate. Cannot wait to taste Cyprus’ liquid gold – wonder whether it beats the Larmes de Chantrou.

 


 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

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