Olive Oil Is Good for You

photo: two kins of prepared olives

On the left, olives stuffed with almonds and on the right, olives drenched in garlic.

The French Paradox Explained?

by Catherine Thevenin

Paris:- Tuesday, 18. April 2000:- Olives were harvested in the Middle East during prehistoric times from trees that grew wild. Along with grape vines, olive trees were the earliest plantlife - after wheat - ever to be cultivated.

The first to grow olives were the Persians. Much later the Romans invented more sophisticated methods of extracting, storing and transporting olive oil. Under their rule, olive groves flourished all over Italy, southern France and Iberia.

In 1947, a group of scientists visiting war-devastated Crete were surprised to discover that its impoverishedphoto: olives on branch inhabitants were, on average, much healthier than either postwar Britons or Americans.

They had lower rates of heart disease, cancer and arthritis and one of the longest life expectancies in the developed world - although Crete was hardly 'developed' at that time.

Olives, as they are on the tree.

The scientists credited this to the Cretan diet, rich in olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, seeds and cereals, and coined the term 'Mediterranean Diet.'

In 1970, an American study showed the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, grains and olive oil. A European study ten years later confirmed those findings.

In France, olive trees were devastated by a big freeze in 1956. France now counts 70,000 olive treesphoto: bottle of olive oil in its groves, compared to 300,000 before the freeze. An olive tree takes 30 years to reach maturity, but can live up to 1,000 years.

Spurred by a growing demand, many producers, in southern France, have returned to traditional methods to produce more flavorful oils.

Olives, as they are after pressing and bottling.

The Mediterranean harvest starts in mid-September, when the olives are picked green, and can last until the fruit has turned black six months later. Artisans pick olives by hand or use a rake-like comb, catching the fruits in a net. A fast worker can harvest 100 kilos of olives in a day. This is only enough to make 20 litres of oil.

These are taken to the local mill to be cold-pressed within 24 hours, using a modern hydraulic machine that filters out the pits and pulp.

France's production is much smaller than that of Spain or Italy, but its oils are known for their superb quality and personalities ranging from soft and floral to vigorous and herbal.

Each olive oil is a product of its region of origin and better brands will carry an 'AOC' label. The main growing regions in France are Nyons in the Drôme; Les Alpilles, the Var, Nice, the Minervois, the Hérault, the Gard and Roussillon.

The type of olive used and the weather conditions leading up to the harvest can affect the oil's quality. Today olive oils are chosen by professional tasters who judgephoto: garlic olives the bouquet, texture and flavor, just like wine. 'Extra-virgin' on the label guarantees that the oil has less than one percent acidity.

Olives, as they are just before I eat them.

Ed's Note:- For the past six years Catherine Thevenin has been operating 'Fugues In France,' which organizes a variety of tours in the south of France.

One of them specializes in the discovery of the numerous varieties of olives with tastings, with visits to olive groves and mills. Visits to the producers often feature meals with, of course, olive oil.

'Fugue' means to escape, break out; to go on the loose. It is what newspapers say kids do when they run away from home. With 'Fugues In France' you can escape from your kids. Unless, of course, they like olives and oil too.

Catherine Thevenin©2000
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