Malta Diary Once upon a time, olive oil was more precious than gold …Roman armies relied on it
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They used to say that armies marched on their stomachs. However, Roman armies marched on olive oil. Without it there would have been no Roman Empire which stretched throughout most of Europe, all of the Mediterranean including the North African coast and into what is today the Middle East, including Syria, Palestine and Israel.
The oil not only provided nutrition, dietary enrichment and enhancement but it also provided great lubrication for long-distance marching in hot and humid climates, accompanied by clouds of dust and was also used to lubricate limbs and particularly to avoid chaffing from pieces of armour and for sore feet.
Little wonder therefore it was regarded truly as liquid gold, strictly rationed and guarded, exchanged as bargaining power and awarded as a prize for various feats of magnificence. Wealth was often judged on one’s olive oil resources and holdings.
In fact – oil was viewed to be more precious than gold!
The Mediterranean Sea, Mediterranean countries, olives and olive oil intermingle, live and thrive off each other – and in Malta, no less.
It is believed the olive tree was first cultivated in Malta by the Phoenicians about 1,500 BC and then further cultivated strongly by the Romans during their lengthy sojourn in Malta. The Romans used the fishing village of Marsaxlokk as a port and this led to the founding of the town today still known as Zejtun for olive cultivation. The name itself Zejtun comes from the Arabic word ‘Zejtuna’ (olive), the word for oil being ‘zejt’. This in turn led to the nearby locality of Bir-id-Deheb (the well of gold as olive oil was regarded as being as precious as gold) and then down to the bay of Birzebbuga, literally meaning a well of olives. Further inland there is the old town of Zebbug, from the word olive because of the extensive cultivation of olive groves.
Zejtun nowadays holds a week-end dedicated to ‘Zejt iz-Zejtun’ in the latter part of September, a veritable feast of olives and olive products – sadly, postponed this year.
Traces of the Malta olive story go back to Neolithic temples in which several carbonised remains of tree species were found, including the Olea europea (olive).
Very unfortunately there were long stretches over centuries when olive groves were vastly overlooked and classed to be of little importance. Many were cut down during the time of the Knights to provide wood for their galleys and ship repairs. To add insult to injury for several centuries cotton was seen to be of greater value (Maltese cotton was famous throughout Europe) than olives, and whole groves were demolished to make way for cotton fields – of which today there are none!
However, over the last 35 or so years there has been a great resurgence and olive groves have thankfully returned with a vengeance and oil pressing has become a speciality, one of the foremost experts being one Sam Cremona who has his own olive press. Naturally, the process is now modernised as opposed to the days of manual grinding or making a poor donkey walk around and circulate for days on end to gear-drive the stone grinding presses.
Cold press is known to produce the best oil because the olives are circulated in large cylindrical drums and the centrifugal process divides water in its outer layer, followed by a circle of broken olives debris with the precious oil as an inner layer that is then oozed away by a pipe and goes into large drums to be bottled.
Carrying out a DNA profile study, some years back, Oriana Mazzitelli working in conjunction with the University of Malta, employed genetic studies and concluded on the different types of Maltese olive cultivars and more importantly, the Maltese wild olive and she then compared these to two Italian and two Tunisian cultivars, that is Carolea and Chemlali.
She also managed to identify four cultivars indigenous to the Maltese islands: the Bidni, Malti, White Olive or bajda and the Maltese wild oleaster.
Amazingly enough, a field of magnificent old and gnarled trees can be found in a field in the area known as Bidnija, and its rural village. The trees and olives are known as Bidni. Carbon dating on the trees established there are some that are no less than 2,000 years old.
Very much a part of the Mediterranean Diet, almost every type of typical Maltese food preparation involves the use of olive oil. In days when poverty was widespread a meal often consisted of thick slices of crunchy bread layered generously with olive oil topped with thinly-mashed fresh tomatoes, topped with fresh basil and finally topped off with lashings of black pepper and salt. This in fact is the base for the birth of the Neapolitan pizza, the Pizza Margerita – fresh dough with olive oil topped with fresh tomato spread and basil, a dish pioneered by Queen Margerita of Naples to provide a cheap food source for the poor.
Nowadays the bread and oil have become a favoured snack, varied with fresh crusty bread dipped in a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then dipped in black pepper and salt.
The resurgence of the Maltese olive groves in recent years has made Maltese olive oil a bye-word of taste and purity. Agricultural experts say this is a result of the smallness of Malta and Gozo as islands with the briny sea air and rich volcanic and limestone infused soil adding to the olive taste and reducing its natural bitterness. The small distances also ensure that carriage from harvesting to pressing are minimal and therefore freshness is always uppermost guaranteed.
As recently as 2010 there was the startling discovery of the White Olive, or Bajda (meaning white), cultivar. This produces attractively white olives which begin to turn slightly pink as they mature and may have survived for many centuries from the Perlina (pearly and hence white) olives, highly referred to in Renaissance literature.
Many preserve and cure their own ready supply of olives, and I do too, buying them raw, washing them thoroughly, cracking them and then curing them in a mixture of white vinegar and salt to produce a brine and leaving them to cure over a number of weeks.
I leave the final word with top-rank chef Jamie Oliver who has classed Maltese olive oil as “the finest in the world” – and I think he knows a thing or two about food and food preparation!
Right, all this has made me peckish for a snack so roll out the fresh bread, the olive oil, fresh tomatoes, basil and loads of pepper and salt to top it all and a bottle of Maltese white wine to polish all off.
“Whoever sows weeds and cultivates vermin will not reap a good harvest”
Referring to a person who creates disunity and division by spreading false and vicious rumours; he cannot expect to be viewed in a good light.