Friday 23 August 2019

Country Matters: Oil of Rome and a bite of pepper

Olives and olive oil. Stock picture
Olives and olive oil. Stock picture

Joe Kennedy

Oil of olives brings its own particular calm.

When mixed with balm and "blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday" it is the essential partner of chrism, the unguent used in anointing in Catholic and Greek Church baptismal ceremonies. The tiny recipients usually make their presence known, although it is the shock of cold water rather than the warm oil that brings forth squeals of protest.

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The phrase is remembered by those who learnt their catechism by rote at primary school. Writers have pulled it in to paragraphs in Irish short stories.

Olive oil is usually a kitchen essential now, latterly on the dining table, its gradual encouragement for regular use with meals probably the result of holiday visits to Spain, Portugal, Italy and France, where it is a culinary staple. Its consumption is wholeheartedly encouraged by nutritionists and promoters of what is called the Mediterranean Diet to wean us away from some unhealthy eating practices.

Irish people who have lived and worked in Europe, or who may be entertaining visitors, may have small dishes of olive oil served with bread as aperitifs.

I have been a regular visitor to Portugal (and occasionally Spain) where my taste for olive oil was kindled but frustrated on return when sought for snacks in Irish bars. A Portuguese friend who has a grocery was missing from behind his counter last autumn, having travelled north on important family business - to help with the olive harvest, a valuable crop especially after a seriously dry summer.

The pattern of work is reminiscent of the meitheal system which once flourished in rural Ireland - where sons, daughters, in-laws and neighbours assemble at the parental farmstead to gather and crush the fruit for the precious oil, and to prepare and eat great meals (accompanied by local wines) after work.

In the past, branches had been cleared using long-handled wooden rakes; these days a machine whirrs through the treetops knocking the olives on to sheeting spread below. After the oil pressing, family members take away a supply for each household, the remainder going to a co-op. I usually get a bottle from my friend to take back to Ireland. It is superb.

There are about five classifications or strengths of oil, the best, you will hear, being peppery with a bite at the back of the tongue. This is quite different to the blended proprietary oils whose smoothness we have all become used to.

The Iberian peninsula produces almost half the world supply of olive oil, though droughts drive up the prices. But the Italians have always had a strong arm on the trade, ever since Roman times.

They are the kings, helped by a law that decrees any oil bottled in Italy to be sold as Italian though it may have come from elsewhere.

There have always been deceptions since biblical times, when the Sumarians engaged sniffers and tasters. An EU source has suggested the profits of olive oil crime were "comparable to cocaine trafficking without the risks".

In Portugal I pass an ancient olive tree still producing fruit. It may have been planted by Roman soldiers and has provided food for many generations since.

Sunday Independent

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