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D - 56: Olives, Wines, Dates and Figs - the Remaking of the Mediterranean Vegetation

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

When writing my blog yesterday, I was thinking of the three fig trees in Chantrou. Every year, we impatiently wait for the figs to get ripe. By July they usually are. The deliciousness of the first fresh fig surprises us every year. It is such a pleasure to break them apart and eat the sweet pink flesh inside. And they make a delicious starter with Parma or Serrano ham.


We talked about the food the Phoenician mariners ate on their long journey west. Warmed-up stews, bread with olive oil, dried figs or dates and diluted wine makes a good meal. But after a while, we all crave for fresh food. It is thus natural that the Phoenicians not only brought their preserved food but also seeds and sprouts to plant. The 1’200 miles from Tyre on the Levant to Carthage in today’s Tunisia were only half-way to Cadiz where they wanted to buy the precious tin and silver. Carthage was an opportunity to resupply if the local food from the Levant could be grown there.


Could not find any source by when the Phoenicians started planting on these foreign soils. Assume it happened fairly quickly. The habit of planting also spread to other cultures. The Greeks colonists planted the fruits from the Levant as efficiently as the Phoenicians. By 500 BC, the vegetation in the Mediterranean had changed. Wines were now everywhere as were olive orchards. Most of the houses were shaded by big fig trees. Dates had spread all along the North African coast. The Fertile Crescent’s cereals where planted everywhere. Barley made it even to some oases in the Saharan where it became a staple food.

Olive orchard in Tunisia - the world's 4th largest producer behind Spain, Italy and Greece with a production of over 300'000 tons a year


Today, olive trees are one of the dominant trees in the Mediterranean. Quite a feat for a non- native tree. Olive trees love limestone soil - the key rock that forms the Mediterranean hills and mountains - and have roots more than 10 meters deep. They thus survive in pretty arid and stony places. 

Whilst we use olive oil mainly for cooking today and to some extend for making shampoos and soaps, its use was far wider in antiquity. Bronze olive oil lamps brightened the nights in the houses of the rich and famous. The oil was also important for religious ceremonies. Olive oil was often used to anoint priests and newly converts.


As we know today, olive oil has many health benefits. It is rich in mono-unsaturated fats, has plenty of antioxidants which reduce the damage that free oxygen radicals can do to our body, has strong anti-inflammatory properties and helps reducing the risk of strokes, heart attacks and diabetes type 2. It is an amazing product - and best of all, it is absolutely delicious. Can you imagine the Mediterranean hills without the silvery olive tree leaves?

Vineyards in the Piedmontese Hills of Northern Italy


A Mediterranean without vineyards is also unthinkable. Wine is a bit less versatile than olive oil and alcohol has it downside. But is was important at the time when there was no clean water. Nasty bacteria can not survive in alcohol thus alcoholic drinks were safer to drink than water. Today, we also know that a glass of read wine a day reduces the risk of coronary heart diseases. Perfect excuse! Wine is not only delicious to drink, Holy Mass without it would be impossible. And it is always a perfect ingredient for cooking - love to make wine sauce reductions - be it for desert (pears in white wine) or meat (filet on a reduced red wine sauce). 


Figs on offer in a French town market - sadly not my photo


We already noted how delicious figs are and what a punch of sugar they pack when dried. But I did not really know how rich in minerals and fibres they were. They are full in essential trace minerals like potassium reducing high blood pressure, magnesium for our water circulation, calcium for strengthening our bones, iron for the transport of oxygen in our blood. Could not figure out what copper does. Anybody knows? As an additional plus, figs are rich in healthy fibres  which makes us feel full and reduces our feeling of being hungry. An ideal diet to slim down! A word of caution is appropriate however. It is also a powerful laxative and we had many visitors in Chantrou who became best friends with our bathrooms! 


Date trees in the Jordan Valley


The last fruit I want to mention today are the dates. The fruit played a prominent role in the Roman diet, a tradition which continues in the Arab culture. Date trees need a lot of heat and water thus only spread along North African shores. We know that Greeks planted date trees in their home country and in Southern Italy around 400 BC. But the trial was not successful. Whilst the trees actually grow, the winter climate is too cold for producing fruits. 


As figs, dates pack a high amount of sugar and fibre and are easy to dry. No wonder they became the preferred food for caravans. They are also rich in trace elements such as potassium, magnesium, manganese and copper. They are good antioxidants and help to control the sugar level in our blood stream. 


Neither Phoenicians nor Greek people had - of course - the necessary scientific knowledge to be aware of this. But empirically, they must have known that eating these fruits was good for their health. It was thus not by accident that these fruits spread so quickly through the entire known civilisation from 800 BC onward.


Tomorrow, we are going to change the topic and start to explore why all the places we are going to visit are so hilly!


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