For centuries, visitors to southern Europe have delighted in the ‘oil of Europe’ (olea europaea), enjoying the olive groves that dominate the cuisine, lifestyle and countryside in Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Malta.
Olive trees have stretched across sun-drenched Europe like an army on parade for centuries. Row after row of immaculately pruned trees, with an abundance of fruit to be harvested in all their different shapes, sizes and colours. Indeed the heathy, humble olive appears to have coexisted with the people of the Mediterranean for nearly 7,000 years. Dating back to the Bronze Age the olive branch has, over the millennia, become not only a staple and necessary food source, but also a symbol of wealth, glory and peace.
Throughout history the leafy olive branch has remained omnipresent. Found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, grown in the centre of Ancient Rome and significant in the New Testament (the Mount of Olives). This jewel of a fruit has remained an essential part of all things southern Europe since time immemorial.
Over the ages olives and their oil have been used in religious ceremonies, historical festivals and significant gatherings. The expression ‘holding out an olive branch’ still has as much significance today as when Noah believed that the sight of an olive branch held out hope of a flood-free future.
To this day, any traveller trekking the south European hillsides or navigating across the agricultural areas by road, plane or train, continues to be overwhelmed at the unmistakable sight of olive groves spreading into the distance as far as the eye can see. Whether travelling in southern Spain, Italy or Greece I have always associated a landscape dominated by olive trees with sunshine, holidays and summer, as these recent photos attest.
So to now hear that Europe’s olive groves are seriously under threat from the dual forces of drought and disease is worrying. Spain’s crop in particular has been hit by disproportionately high temperatures and drought this year. Italy’s production has been devastated by the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria, destroying trees at such a rate the Italian government has declared a “state of calamity”. As a result, worldwide projected produce is down 12%, and global prices up 10%. The demand for the ‘oil of Europe’ continues to rise worldwide.
Certainly as travellers and tourists we should not take the majesty of southern Europe’s olive grove landscape for granted. We should celebrate this natural produce that the peoples of all continents use to cook, burn, rub, squeeze, smother, dress and consume. Long may it grow in the heart of southern Europe, and long may the dramatic landscape thereof continue to blossom and bloom for all to see.