There are eight olive trees in the park opposite my son’s school. Five are barely two metres high, with lollipop trunks from which branches shoot like fingers on a hand, or heads with Einstein’s hair. The other three are bigger, four or five metres according to my inaccurate internal ruler, but only one has branches wide enough for kids to sit on or dangle from, which means every now and then a child falls out like a coconut. They rarely complain when they do, because they know they shouldn’t really be there, although the nuns and gardeners who oversee the park never seem particularly bothered.
I always envy their position, dangling on the gnarled branches, their heads amongst the narrow, leathery leaves, green on one side, silver underneath. Even more so in autumn, when there are olives, too; a leaf-level seat to watch green turn to yellowish, turn to violet with white spots, then purple, before arriving at black. And they do watch, , and often fill their pockets with treasure, or ammunition. I have seen kids dare each other to bite them, too, then spit with horror.
Olive trees, Olea europaea, can live for centuries and seem immortal. In her essay on olives in Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser notes that, “if an olive tree is burned down or cut, the root survives and can spontaneously send out suckers from the ovules at its base underground, meaning green shoots are miraculously born out of a burned stump”. About 3,550km from Rome, on a ridge east of Jerusalem’s Old City called The Mount of Olives, there are also eight trees that are said to have been there since the time of Christ. At the foot of the mount is a garden called Gethsemane, which derives from the Aramaic for oil press. And an oil press is what it takes to turn a small berry, or drupe, with inedible and horrifyingly bitter flesh into one of the most delicious oils on earth.
I have a good teacher when it comes to matters of the olive. He is called Johnny Madge, who, in turn, has hundreds of good teachers, in the form of olive oil producers all over the world. A world that, thanks to a global pandemic, has both closed and opened up. I was resistant at first to the idea of sitting at my desk, sucking olive oil through my teeth on Zoom; it seemed not only too far removed from my idea of what an olive oil tasting should be, but depressing. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Desk light turned out to be a wonderful light in which to sniff and suck the contents of the mini bar of olive oils Johnny sent, and Zoom a surprisingly intimate and successful way to learn how to taste and what to look for (tomato vines, green bananas, artichoke, grass, almonds), how to spot a defect, the meaning of virgin and how cold cold-pressed really is, about romance and reality, cost and how best to choose. Far too much to fit into one column, which is why I haven’t tried, and I get to finish with three words I have long wanted to write: to be continued …
There is a recipe, of course. Apple and olive oil cake based on one by the exceptional teacher and Tuscan cook Giulia Scarpaleggia, whom I will talk about more next week, so please treat this as olive oil homework.
Apple and olive oil cake
Juice of ½ lemon
180g soft brown or caster sugar, plus 2 tbsp extra for the apples
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 pinch salt
8g baking powder
2 tbsp apricot jam
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 and prepare a 26cm round cake tin, either by greasing it with a knob of butter, then dusting with flour, or lining it with baking paper.
Peel, core and quarter three of the apples, then cut each quarter into 2mm-thick slices. Put these in a bowl, then toss with the lemon juice and two tablespoons of sugar.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, then add the olive oil, ricotta, sugar, flour, salt and baking powder. Stir the apple slices into the batter, then scrape everything into the prepared tin.
Peel core and slice the remaining apple , then use the slices to decorate the surface of the cake, placing them in concentric circles, starting from the outside and working in.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden, the cake firm and a strand of spaghetti inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool for 30 minutes, then remove from the tin. Warm the apricot jam until runny, then paint over the cake, leave to cool and eat while it’s still warm or at room temperature.
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