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The Olive Line

FORKLORE

September 24, 1997|Charles Perry

The olive is an oddity--a fruit that's mostly raised for the oil in its flesh. (There's also a high-quality oil in its seed, which is where you find the oil in most plants.) For this reason, and because it's bitter, we don't think of it as a fruit.

But it's treated as a fruit in a way you might not expect. Turkey and the eastern Arab countries--Egypt, Syria and Lebanon--generally don't go for the idea of cooking meat with fruit. This is really a new thing, because there was no such taboo in the Middle Ages, but it extends to olives.

As a result, a line runs slantwise through the olive-raising world from the Balkans to North Africa. To the west of it, in Italy, southern France, Spain and North Africa, olives often show up in stews, pa^tes, meat pies and stuffed meat dishes. But to the east, though olives are certainly beloved--to a lot of people, breakfast means olives, bread and cheese--olives are eaten raw. They garnish salads and occasionally even cooked dishes, but rarely, if ever, are they cooked.

The Balkans are a mixed zone. There's a classic Romanian rabbit stew with olives, but only occasionally are olives cooked in Greece. Olives are regularly stewed with leeks in Romania and with cabbage in Bulgaria. Both these ideas can be found in the 4th century Roman cookbook of Apicius, by the way, though Apicius naturally used fresh cabbage, not sauerkraut.

Turkey recently came up with the oddest use for olives. About 10 years ago, people started selling a recel--the syrupy sort of jam usually served at breakfast in Turkey--made with olives. (Turkish food writer Nevin Halici tracked down the inventor, a Mr. Nadir Cobanoz.) Zeytin receli has become reasonably popular, though it takes an adventurous palate.

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