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20 february 2012

Last fall, I unintentionally laid myself open to charges of olive-oil snobbery when I described my everyday cooking oil as "green." A friend thought that olive oil was yellow, wasn't it? I began a long and not undefensive explanation of my search for good cheap extra-virgin oil. Like so many foodie luxuries, good olive oil is priced rather arbitrarily. You can pay almost as much as you want for oil; there are bottles that come numbered and certified from single ancient groves in Greece or Italy, with so much text on their labels that they practically interview each individual olive. You can pay $30 a liter, $40 a liter; seriously, you can pay $100 a liter for artisanal oil, easily: start searching now and it'll be a few clicks away from your doorstep. On the other hand you can do what I do and proceed to a nearby halal grocery – there's one not far away in most US metro areas – and get a perfectly good bottle of rich green oil for $7-$10 a liter. I got a liter of extra-virgin Spanish oil the other day for $4.59. At least it says it's extra virgin. If it's spent time riding in cars with boys, I'm unlikely to know the difference.

In other words, Fabrizia Lanza's global history of the olive was written for people like me. Olives are not really a global food – they thrive in half of the Northern Hemisphere, so they're a sort of quarter-global item – but they have a deep and romantic history. Olive trees are as long-lived as any human culinary plant can get: they are practically immortal. Groves hundreds of years old are still in ordinary production, and there are doubtless trees here and there across the Mediterranean that survive from medieval or classical times. This is not your typical fruit tree. It's a quasi-magical invocation of human connection to the soil, to traditional foodways, and to our interdependence with vegetable life.

The cultural history of the olive is scarcely less amazing. Just up the Tiber from the ancient center of Rome lies Monte Testaccio, basically a big old landfill. It is constructed mostly out of ceramic olive-oil jars. The appetite of classical Romans for olive oil – for soap, cosmetics, and household fuel as much as for cooking – is given vivid material form by this heap of oleaginous rubbish.

Lanza's Olive is full of this kind of olive trivia. It packs piquant facts and luscious pictures into its modest 80-odd pages of text, and follows them with recipes that demand trying. I am especially taken with a lamb tagine flavored with olives and olive-oil, but also with sesame, honey, and apple (102). I will try to post an update here after I've fixed it.

Lanza, Fabrizia. Olive: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.