Ode to a Grecian Olive Tree

The twelve labors of Hercules come across as a “honey-do” chore list when compared to the travails his mother country, Greece, is now facing. This once proud country that gave us the great ancient philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle along with the birth place of the Olympic Games, is now on the brink of bankruptcy. As Greece continues its “who will blink first” stare-down with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, I thought it might be a good time to put a more positive spin on this historic country by celebrating some of the culinary contributions that Greece has to offer.

The cuisine of Greece is centered around the olive tree and the sheep and goats that graze on the rocky hillsides. In Greek mythology it was Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, who presented the olive tree as a gift to the Grecian people. The olive tree was so revered that a wreath made from olive branches was bestowed upon the victorious athletes competing in the ancient Olympic Games.  Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil in the world, trailing Spain and Italy, but its people consume more olive oil per capita than anywhere else. Olive trees have a proclivity for calcareous soils and sea breezes which reach their culmination on the limestone hills and crags along the coast of the Greek peninsula and the adjacent islands. The island of Crete and the Kalamata region in the southern Peloponnese peninsula are the primary olive and olive oil producing areas of Greece. It has been estimated that 60% of the cultivated land in Greece is devoted to olive trees. The average lifespan of an olive tree is between 300-600 years but Greece sports a number of ancient specimens in the 2000-2500 year range.

Olive tree groves in Italy have recently experienced a perfect storm of calamities including drought, olive fly infestations and a disease known as Olive Quick Decline Syndrome caused by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium. Greece has been spared these setbacks and could help fill the void left by Italy for high quality extra virgin olive oil at a reasonable price. Brands featured at the Living Earth include Aria, Athena, Gaea and Minerva. Divina and Gaea produce some of the finest eating olives including Kalamata, Mt. Athos, Mt. Pelion and Greek mixes that include several varieties.  Divina also has a Kalamata olive spread that is heavenly on bread or crackers and rice-stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) that make great appetizers or a component of a meze platter. Flame roasted sweet peppers from the Peloponnese company are another treat from the sun drenched peninsula.

Due to its rocky, hilly, semi-arid terrain, Greece produces many more cheeses made from sheep and goat’s milk than from cows. Feta is the iconic cheese of Greece. Roussas Dairy, founded in 1952, has been a pioneer in the production of certified organic feta cheese that also carries a Protected Designation of Origin label. The Roussas  family members are descendants of the nomadic Sarakatsani who tended their sheep and goats in the mountains of central Greece. The sheep and goat’s milk used for cheese production is still sourced from this region. The feta is brined and then aged in traditional beech wood barrels. Mount Vikos kasseri is another sheep and goat milk cheese. It is made in a manner similar to mozzarella and provolone and is an excellent snacking or cooking cheese. Mount Vikos also produces a number of delicious Grecian spreads and tapenades, perfect for a summer picnic.

Halloumi is a unique cheese that can be grilled, fried, broiled or baked without melting. It originated on the island of Cyprus, the mythological birthplace of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Although Cyprus is independent of Greece, 77% of its inhabitants are of Greek ancestry. Shepherds of Cyprus makes an excellent Halloumi from sheep’s milk, vegetarian rennet and a touch of mint. It can be grated on top of a salad but it comes into its glory when grilled or fried to a golden brown. It can even be kabobed and grilled on the barbie without oozing off the skewer.

While the Greek economy teeters on the brink of insolvency, its culinary traditions are as strong and durable as their beloved olive trees.