The Blessed Tree

Tracing the roots of one of the world’s most fascinating fruits

I had a lot of misgivings when I started reading Julie Angus’s Olive Odyssey: Searching for the Secrets of the Fruit That Seduced the World. The set-up seemed too much like a reality show: couple with ten-month-old baby sails the Mediterranean coast. The claim that Angus had visited “perhaps the oldest olive tree in the world, on Crete,” highlighted in the blurb, also made me extremely uneasy. However, the book won me over. My native country, Bulgaria, is not on the Mediterranean, but its cuisine is deeply influenced by Mediterranean cooking, and olives, as well as olive oil from Greece, are a staple. My love of these foods heightened my enjoyment of the book. Olive Odyssey has many strengths: its contribution to scientific and historical research on olives, good food and travel writing, a sense of humour and an eye for detail, and a sense of adventure and exploration.

Let’s deal with the science first, as it is the most challenging aspect of the book. Angus started with an interest in discovering where the olive tree was domesticated. A theory about this exists, but scholars are not certain. The theory is that olive trees were first domesticated in the Middle East and then brought over by Phoenician travellers to Europe. Angus wanted to test this theory by sailing around the Mediterranean coast collecting samples from ancient olive trees, both domestic and wild, and comparing the DNA of the Middle Eastern and European samples. Because the sailing season is limited, she could not sail all around the Mediterranean, but she flew to the Middle East from Athens and spent time in Israel and the West Bank. Angus did not do the analysis of the samples herself; she passed them on to experts, but she has a master’s degree in molecular biology and understands science well enough to figure out what types of samples (twigs, fruit and bark) would be valuable to researchers. In the end, DNA analysis of the samples confirmed the theory that the domesticated olive tree originated in the Middle East.

Collecting the samples this way had the added advantage of taking the Anguses and their son, Leif, on a sailing adventure. Despite being a seasoned seafarer (she is noteworthy for crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat with her husband, Colin, in 2006), Angus felt some unease at the beginning of their Mediterranean trip. Being on a sailboat with a ten-month-old baby and no one but themselves to do child care had its challenges. But fairly quickly, the family not only adapted to their circumstances but also came to enjoy the experience. Leif seems to have been a colicky baby, and the trip did him a world of good. Stimulated by his changing surroundings, he was happier than he had been at home. The Anguses stopped at famous hubs such as Barcelona and Cannes, but because of the nature of the research they also took in a lot of remote locations. The book contains many beautiful descriptions of inlets, cliffs and rugged shorelines that seem almost untouched by human activity. Because of the tourist industry we seldom imagine Europe this way anymore. On the one hand, Angus finds evidence of some of the world’s oldest civilizations, but, on the other, she experiences pristine and preserved nature in many of these spots.

One of the most valuable insights of the book is its understanding of the Mediterranean as a region. The great French historian Fernand Braudel argued that geography, climate and diet had a more salient impact on culture than nation-states. Olive Odyssey upholds this thesis by showing how the region is united through the olive, which, historically, was much more than a food. It was fuel, it had industrial uses, it was a base for perfumes, it was used to make soap, and it had religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Through Angus’s journey we get a sense of the artificiality of national boundaries. There are places in Europe that are not easily located in one country, border regions with cities like Nice, islands like Corsica, tiny countries like Monaco. National identities dissolve as the Mediterranean world comes to the fore. It is a civilization of great beauty but also great turmoil. Politics are not Angus’s focus and the book may not intentionally be structured that way, but one gets the impression of conditions steadily deteriorating as one moves from west to east. We begin with economic problems in Spain allowing Angus to buy a sailboat much cheaper than its actual value. France and Italy appear prosperous, but then we move to Greece, unsettled by strikes and anti-austerity measures. We then see the West Bank, where things are much grimmer, and the intended final destination, Syria, does not even make it to the book, because it is not safe to visit.

Olive oil is good for you, and the book provides lots of support for this notion. It had numerous medicinal uses in the past associated with tradition and folklore. Boiling bats in olive oil was supposed to cure a hernia, and a lizard boiled in olive oil cured baldness. While these historical examples tell us more about the cultural importance of olive oil than they do about its healing properties, modern science suggests more convincing benefits such as reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Unfortunately, many of us are unable to reap the benefits of olive oil because of fraud and the advertising of inferior oils as “extra virgin olive oil.” (“Extra virgin” means oil extracted from the olives at the first pressing, without any extreme heat or chemicals added to the process.) The most serious example of fraud is the toxic olive oil (containing rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline, a coal tar extract) that killed close to 700 people in Spain in the 1980s. Angus suggests some useful tips for distinguishing the real thing from fakes, but in the end the surest test remains your palate. Within the industry itself, determining authenticity through science is still very difficult, meaning that professional olive oil tasters are still at the forefront of deciding what is good.

Angus is a wonderful food writer—indeed, this might be a career she could explore if she needed a rest from some of her challenging exploration projects. In one of the most memorable sections of the book, its opening, she describes a meal cooked for her by her aunt and uncle in Aleppo when she went to visit: “Their faux-wood table with its skinny aluminum legs struggled under the weight of pomegranate-infused lamb stew; chicken baked in a creamy yogurt sauce; salad topped with fried triangles of pita bread; bowls of steaming lentil soup; and platters of cigarlike rolls of meat and rice tightly wrapped in vine leaves, stuffed baby eggplant, and torpedo-shaped patties of fried bulgur and ground beef known as kibbeh.” This meal was the moment when she first discovered what good olive oil can taste like, and it inspired her journey and Olive Odyssey. Why, I ask myself after reading of this fantastic food, do we not have more Syrian restaurants?

The book is well written and a pleasure to read. The major flaw is that some sections read like a Wikipedia article listing impressive facts about the olive without any analysis. These passages can seem arbitrary and hard to read. Angus is at her best when describing her journey, the places, people and food she met along the way. The significance of the olive emerges as Angus observes and describes its role in the actual lives of farmers, scientists, writers, artists and all the people of the Mediterranean.