What is it about growing up and liking bitter things? The olive is perhaps the classic example of this… the sort of thing a child would immediately turn up her nose at and start making “yuck” noises. And yet adults politely nibble and derive genuine pleasure. I wonder if our tastebuds change, or whether it’s a shift towards more complex pleasures? A recognition of the sour that goes alongside the sweet in life, and often makes it taste better.

I love olives. I am immediately drawn back in my mind to a sunny day in a market in a small French town, to a stall where wooden tubs and wooden scoops proudly present their wares. From the deepest black olives (wrinkled, tart and intense), to the springlike green set off by flashes of red pepper. Going via the slightly unreal purples of my favourite Kalamata olives, sweet and piquant at once. Even tiny ones, bright as jewels – just a thin covering of flesh over the stone but such an intense flash of flavour. Not to mention the green-gold nectar of virgin olive oils gleaming in the sunlight. Such a pleasure to select a mix of all these different types, run them home, spill out the glistening nuggets on a plate or just munch them from the bag. Nibbling the flesh off the seed, then finding a place to spit it out. Not the politest of food, when properly enjoyed, but all the better for that!

Strange how olives are often quite a social food – in any pizzeria the chances are someone will have olives on their pizza that they don’t want – and the olive vultures at the table circle and pounce to be allowed their taste of the salty goodness.

Beautiful trees, too. So gnarled, and yet with such delicate silvery leaves.

I heard once that the fruit of the olive tree is actually virtually inedible… until it has been pickled and salted and generally run through a complicated process that results in the fruit we enjoy. I wonder how anyone came across the idea of doing that… if you taste a fruit and it is initially vile, it takes persistence, or serious hunger, to devote so much effort to finding a way to make it edible.

Maybe that’s another dimension of adulthood… finding a way to take things that are initially unpalatable and turn them into something rewarding. A determination. A willingness to push through the difficult times and the bad flavours. To make something happen, because you believe that it can. There are sweeter, lower-hanging fruit. But there’s something satisfying in making a bitter fruit into something which is, perhaps not yet sweet, but still profoundly satisfying. Our lives need their olives.

Though I sometimes wonder whether the times we live in are not conducive to creating olives. We’re not hungry enough to need to make the offered fruit into something edible. There is so much low hanging sweet fruit around us that it is easy to become lazy. The opposite of Tantalus, the grapes fall so close to our lips that we become too lazy to reach for different fruit. The routines of contact with the world around us in its most basic form, to draw water, to cultivate the food we eat, to be physically part of the ecosystem… for most of us, this is so far away. And so perhaps it is too easy to stay in a perpetual childhood, eating sherbet lemons rather than real ones. Yet life would be very dull without the piquancy of a fruit as complex and as well-earnt through labour as an olive.

This is a 15 minute writing practice inspired by Red Ravine – to write for 15 minutes about olives, without censoring or correcting.

Photo credit – Olives, originally uploaded to flickr by steve green.


10 responses to “Olives

  1. So many great words and terms for the senses: slightly unreal purples, sweet and piquant, bright as jewels, glistening nuggets. Really wonderful.

    I also am amazed and the ingenuity and persistence that it took to turn the bitter inedible fruit to something that is so widely revered and consumed. Interesting how you applied that notion to life in general, lessons of adulthood.

    I’m flight fancy, not fight, and I often have to remind myself to persevere, stay strong, and fight back. And by “fight back,” I don’t mean in a nasty way, but rather, just don’t run away from my problems. Stick it out.

  2. I like the way writing practices take you to unexpected places – the reflections on adulthood just turned up without much forethought.

    On your last comment, I have a bit of a tendency to appease rather than run or fight! Sometimes standing your ground and maintaining your integrity takes a lot more courage than fighting, flighting or ingratiating! Though sometimes also you need to learn when to move on and let go.

  3. Wonderful Writing Practice lirone. Wow, my senses are alive with details and flavor. I love how you wove some of the history in, too, about the persistence required to turn an unpalatable fruit into something delectable. And the way we reach for the easy, the familiar, don’t always push ourselves beyond. Yes — Our lives need their olives. This Practice would be a great essay. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Thanks for the inspiration!

    “Our lives need their olives” would be a great slogan… not quite sure what for, but definitely an evocative phrase!

  5. “Our lives need their olives” would indeed be a great slogan. 🙂

    I enjoyed this very much. I like the way it leads from the olives themselves to perseverance. I’ve often wondered how the ancients decided to make the unpalatable palatable. Coffee beans, olives, all those foods and drinks that require a lot of work to get to a point where you can eat or drink it. How did they manage to come up with those solutions?

  6. I suppose if you are hungry you can’t afford to let a potential food source go to waste… so you have an incentive to take the time to find a way to make it palatable. A big contrast to societies like ours where food is so easy to obtain that we waste so much of it!

  7. Lirone – this is so thoughtful and sensual a write. You are so right – “the unreal purples” of the kalamata, the sometimes “spring greens” so subtle and elusive a colour. The point you make that as humans we have had a tendency to make out of the most improbable fruits food is on spot. Think of the humble pine nut – maybe some ancestor thought – “if the squirrels can eat it, why can’t we?” We learn to use what nature provides by observing the habits of other animals. it does not take a great leap to consider as they get along so can we. But this attitude is somehow eroded in modern us, as we place ourselves in superior position to animals. i remember an older child picking the seeds off a weed, we called the seed “pap-sajt” (priest’s cheese) he ate it, so then my sister and I tried it and found it satisfying. We spent one whole summer grazing in ditches, satisfying peckish. urges, never got sick, and were not chastised by adults for trying out this available substance. i associate “perpetual childhood”, not with sweet sherbets or ice creams, but with foraging at the roadside sampling the greenery, testing the tastes of the bounty.
    This was such a well structured examination of the olive, pretty amazing you did this in a 15 minute free-write.
    i am checking out your archives now! G

  8. Your point about squirrels made me grin and think at the same time… there’s definitely so much we can learn from the natural world.

    The thing I love about free writes is the way they find their own structure if you let them… I really should do more of them as I find the results always take me somewhere new!

    Have fun in my archives!

  9. Olives need certain special friends for me to like them. By themselves I can’t stand them but in the proper combination – such as perhaps a thin crust mushroom pizza- they are amazing. I have a few friends like that too.

    Everything Will Be Alright – A Journey Through Couples Therapy

  10. Olives are fantastic on pizza… but when I can get hold of really good olives, particularly from markets in southern Europe, I love to go on an olive binge and just devour them straight from the bag!

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