The inedible olive


I had passed the olive tree by the house many times that day. Its leaves were a shimmery silver like an exotic party dress waving to the rhythm of the warm Mistral wind on that sunny autumn day. I stopped to touch a branch, running its leaves through my dry fingers. I came across a soft, firm little fruit and, before I knew what had happened, there was a cold hard olive lying in my hand. The black fruit became glossy as a rolled around between my fingers. Its firm flesh had ripe give when I pressed it. I knew nothing about olive trees and their mystery got the best of me: I popped the exotic fruit into my mouth and bit down. BLEHHHHH! Bitter mouth contorting awfulness. I spit several times on the ground and went looking for water.

The raw olive is inedible, despite its seductive looks. In her fascinating book, Much Depends on Dinner (1986), Margaret Visser tells us that raw olives contain a bitter substance called oleuropein, which is separated in the production process for making oil. It is siphoned off with the vegetable water. Apparently this byproduct is quite difficult to dispose of and can become a dangerous pollutant. In Roman times, it was called amurca and it was used as a weed-killer and insecticide.

When I go down to Amelia next week, I plan to avoid eating the raw olives but I will investigate what happens to this bitter byproduct. It would be interesting to see if it is being put to some use and maybe there is a potential to do so in the future.