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.
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