Twisted, Gnarled, Knotted and Beautiful
By “Awake!” correspondent in Spain
What is twisted, gnarled, knotted and beautiful? What is it that can supply fuel to chase away winter’s cold, shade to alleviate summer’s heat, dressing for your salad, balm for your wounds and even light for night’s darkness? The answer is the tough, sinewy, old olive tree, known by the experts as “Olea europaea.”
Have you ever seen an olive tree? If you live near the Mediterranean, surely you have, for these trees seem to thrive even in the driest and most inhospitable terrain. As one authority puts it: “The unique importance of this plant lies especially in its characteristic permanent cultivation, . . . producing harvests even in the most difficult conditions. It resists long periods of almost total abandonment and it easily recovers from critical periods caused by climatological accidents or problems of cultivation.”
The cultivated olive tree has abundant foliage, consisting of long, narrow leaves with a pale-green face and a gray-green reverse side. The olive groves at Andalusia, in the south of Spain, stretch for miles, with row after row of well-kept trees. When a breeze rustles through, the dual coloring of the leaves creates a beautiful shimmering effect.
Some olive trees adopt strange shapes. Trunks seem to intertwine and twist, giving the impression of wrestlers locked in combat, or of serpents writhing and rising from a nest. Of course, it takes many years for this to happen. But the olive tree is in no hurry.
It may take up to 50 years for one of these trees to reach a peak of olive production. Many in mainland Spain are over 400 years old. In Syria, Palestine and Tunisia, some base trunks have been alive for more than 1,000 years. The Spanish Balearic island of Majorca is also known for its millenarian olive trees with their massive girth and endless variety of forms. According to the viewer’s imagination, the tree trunks seem to take different shapes.
Nothing is wasted in the olive tree. Its leaves serve as animal fodder, its roots as firewood, and its timber, although knotted and gnarled, can be polished to a beautiful high amber with a grain finish. Of course, its most important product is the olive berry that has supplied man with oil for thousands of years.
The olive berry comes in a variety of sizes, from one to four centimeters (.4 to 1.5 inches) in diameter, depending on whether it is round or oval. Olives also appear in a variety of colors. Some are green, some are black, and others display different hues of reddish purple. Why the difference? Actually, most varieties pass through the green stage first, then turn reddish purple on their way to becoming black, when they are truly ripe. So the color depends on when the berries are picked; and that, of course, influences the taste as well as the oil content.
If you travel through an area where olive trees grow, do not feel tempted just to pluck an olive from a tree and eat it. If you do, you will get a bitter surprise, because olives are not really edible until treated.
To neutralize that bitter taste, olives are soaked in a dilute alkali solution (lye, sodium hydroxide) that is allowed to penetrate about two thirds of the olive flesh, leaving just a trace of bitterness around the pit to impart flavor. After the lye solution has been drained off, the olives are covered with water that is changed several times during a period of one to two days to eliminate most of the lye. Here in Spain, they are then transferred to 180-gallon (680-liter) vats of brine in which they remain for a period of one to six months. The final product is preserved with brine in sealed glass jars or small plastic bags for sale to the public. Larger quantities are put in barrels and metal containers for export and for sale to shops, bars, hotels and restaurants.
How Olive Oil Is Obtained
The olive’s main product is its oil, which has been highly valued by man for millenniums. How is it obtained, and what are its use?
The most laborious part of the harvesting process is the picking of the olives from the trees. There are two ways to do this. The slower method is by hand picking, which guarantees a better quality oil, while the most popular method is vareo, or beating the branches with long rods to make the berries fall on fine netting or plastic that is spread under the tree. This system, which was also used in Bible times, is quicker but causes damage to the trees and the berries. (Deut. 24:20; Isa. 24:13) When the olives are black and ripe, they have their maximum oil content, which may range from 20 to 30 percent of the fresh fruit’s weight.
After being harvested, the olives are washed and then passed through a mill to be crushed. The resulting mass is transferred to a hydraulic press that squeezes out the vital oil. This contains impurities and foreign matter that are strained off through a series of decantation vats. Nowadays, in well-equipped factories, much of this process is accelerated by the use of modern machinery such as centrifugal separators. The end product is fine olive oil.
The Olive in Bible Times
A well-known Bible encyclopedia states that “no tree is more frequently mentioned by ancient authors, nor was any one more highly honored by ancient nations.” Certainly, the olive figures prominently in the Bible, along with the vine and the fig tree. This is to be expected since Palestine lies between the latitudes in which olive trees prosper.
The earliest Biblical reference to the olive is in the book of Genesis, where it states that when the floodwaters of Noah’s day had abated, a dove returned to the ark “and, look! there was an olive leaf freshly plucked in its bill.” This indicated that the waters had receded.—Gen. 8:11.
Another early reference to the olive appears in the book of Job and gives an interesting insight into the olive tree’s flowering habits. Eliphaz the Temanite is quoted as saying: “He will thrust away his unripe grapes just like a vine, and cast off his blossoms just like an olive tree.” (Job 15:33) The facility with which olive blossoms fall from the tree makes the cultivator dread any untoward wind or breeze that would abort the tree’s fruitfulness.
King David held the olive tree in high esteem when he made this poetic expression: “But I shall be like a luxuriant olive tree in God’s house; I do trust in the loving-kindness of God to time indefinite, even forever.” (Ps. 52:8) This and other figurative Biblical uses of the olive tree help us to see that it was an appropriate symbol of fruitfulness, beauty, dignity and prosperity.
Another noteworthy Scriptural reference to the olive tree is found in the apostle Paul’s illustration of a wild olive being grafted into a cultivated olive tree. This, in fact, is completely contrary to normal practice, as Paul obviously would know. To get good fruit from a wild olive tree, a branch from a cultivated one has to be grafted in. Nevertheless, with this unusual allegory, Paul indicated that, by God’s favor, the “wild olive” Gentiles had been grafted into the “garden olive” Jews to form the spiritual “Israel of God.”—Rom. 11:17-24; compare Galatians 3:28; 6:16.
For centuries the olive has been part of the staple diet for Spanish people. Apart from its culinary uses, olive oil is employed in the textile industry, in the manufacture of toilet and cosmetic products, as a lubricant and for medicinal purposes. The next time you see a twisted, gnarled, knotted old olive tree, meditate on its beauty, on its long and humble service to mankind, and thank God for providing such a versatile tree.