Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A jar of olives

A JAR OF OLIVES.

 

 

A friend of mine has presented me with a fine large jar of olives, just imported from the Levant. My friend and all his family, in common, I suppose, with most others who have not resided in olive countries or acquired a liking for that fruit look upon olives as only the next remove from the most nauseous physic. I like them myself; therefore I uncork the jar, and as I gaze into it and inhale the (to me) pleasant aroma, previously to brushing up old recollections and flavours by regaling on a dozen or two, I am suddenly plunged into deep reflection, and find memory busy at the bottom of the jar, digging up old reminiscences.

The first thing brought to light is a very ancient Arabic anecdote, or fable, about a certain eccentric caliph, who loved to ramble about incognito, and who was once riding about near the environs of Bagdad, when he chanced to light upon an octogenarian, who was busily occupied in planting out some young olive-shoots. How the royal incognito chuckled to himself, as he disdainfully asked the veteran whether he really was so stupid as to suppose that he was going to live long enough to enjoy the fruit of his labour, and how his unseemly mirth was changed into much confusion of countenance at the sage’s reply: “If my ancestors had not sown olives, how should I ever have enjoyed the fruit or the oil produced therefrom; I sow that future generations may reap, and bless the hand that sowed the seed.”

Of course the caliph was a wiser and a better man thenceforward; at least so says this oriental fable, or anecdote, and I am not supposed to be responsible for its veracity. “Si non e vero e bene trovato.”

Well, I also, in my life’s experience, have planted olives and watched them grow; and if I were to return to the spot, doubtless by this time I might reap some of the fruit of my labour. Who knows? perhaps the contents of this jar were gathered from those very identical trees! The thought is a pleasant one to myself, and will impart an extra relish to the flavour. That was in a large oil district in Syria, where the whole of the high land was devoted to the cultivation of the olive tree, both for the sake of the fruit and the oil it yields; a great quantity of the latter is exported to various parts of Europe; whilst an incredible quantity of the fruit (preserved either in salt and water or in its own oil), is consumed by the Christian portion of the native population during their frequently recurring fasts, the longest of which are Lent and Advent. They also on festive occasions use the olive for culinary purposes, such, for instance, as stuffing ducks and fowls, or a shoulder of mutton. Of course, when so used, the stone is extracted. There are very few plants that require less care or trouble than the olive does. Indigenous to the soil, it is of a hardy as well as a fruitful nature, but is governed by the same rule which applies to many other fruit or berry-producing trees and plants; that of having alternate years of plentiful and scant crops.

The olive harvest is the latest crop of the year, being usually gathered in through the northern districts of Syria about the end of October or the first week in November. Then the peasant and all the available members of his family find active occupation for a full week or ten days, according to the size of the plantation they have to work upon.

In the spring, the silkworm seed has been hatched, reared, fed, and converted into cocoons, and the cocoons spun into silk, or picked into what is called cotton-silk. The mulberry trees have had their branches lopped off—as a supply of winter fuel—and sufficient silkworm eggs are preserved against the crop for next year.

In the summer, the wheat, barley, and other grain is gathered and winnowed in the centre of vast fields; the hay and straw is collected into bundles and piled up in sheds (for they are unacquainted with the art of stacking), or between the beams and the roof of the cottages.

In early autumn, the grapes are collected, dipped into boiling water, and hung across cords, to conserve them for winter use; or converted into wine, or rakey; or else dried as raisins, or boiled down into the saccharine matter called “Becmaze, or Dhips.”

The leaves off the branches of the mulberry trees, which have sprouted considerably since the lopping operations of spring, are stripped off by hand, affording a plentiful supply of food for oxen and other cattle.

Then comes the olive crop; and to gather this in the peasant and his family bivouac in a roughly got up shed somewhere about the centre of the plantation; in and around which are rolls of coarse matting and empty baskets, all to find service on the morrow.

The dawn is just breaking, and larks leaving their warm nests for flights of song, when the peasant rouses his family, and they get their frugal breakfast off a few dried fruits, some bread, and a cup of water. Then each one laden according to his or her capability with mats or baskets, they scatter themselves under the trees immediately surrounding the huts. The younger children climb up the trees, to shake the uppermost branches, which are almost too fragile to admit of even their weight. The wind blows up in heavy puffs from seaward, aiding the gatherers not a little: mats are spread underneath, and the father, mother, and eldest daughter pick up the fruit as it falls, and pile it up into the baskets. When the youngsters have exerted all their strength, they come down, and the father climbs up, and getting a firm footing where the tree commences to branch out, seizes upon two of the stoutest branches, and bringing all his might to bear upon the effort, shakes them just as one sometimes sees a large and furious monkey in a cage seize upon the bars and shake them with unrelenting vengeance. The result is a perfect hailstorm of olives, so heavy and so hard that those underneath are glad to get out of the way for awhile. Nevertheless, be he Jew, or Turk, or Fellah, or Christian, the peasant is careful to leave a few olives upon the tree for the benefit of the houseless vagrant and very poor gleaner, who will be sure to visit the spot so soon as the peasant returns to his home. By this act, in many cases ignorantly, they follow the injunctions of the Old Testament. Every day, just at the close of evening, the peasant loads the day’s produce upon horses, mules, asses, and even oxen, and conveys them in safety to the proprietor’s house on the estate: returning with his beasts of burthen in time for a good night’s rest, to brace him up against to-morrow’s labours. When all the trees have been so served, then the hut and the baskets, the mats, the peasant and his family, all disappear from the field of action, and the olive groves relapse into solitude, made sadder still by the plaintive cooing of the turtle dove, who is possibly telling his mate that the winter is nigh—and that they had better return to their winter quarters in the mosque at the entrance gate of the nearest town.

This does not complete the peasant’s labour upon the olive harvest; but the remainder of the work has to be conducted under the experienced and wary eye of the proprietor of the estate, and it requires some considerable practical experience to judge which olives are best adapted for one purpose, and which for another.

Firstly, the whole has to be sorted into three different qualities: the pulpy, juicy, and well-matured olives are set aside for extracting the finest edible or salad oil; the barely ripened, green, hard, and transparent ones are collected for pickling in salt and water; the inferior, including those that are unripe, small, and almost devoid of juice, and blown down by the wind, are kept to be preserved in olive oil; while all the refuse, the dried up, worm-eaten, blighted, and so forth, are converted into very inferior, black, thick oil, which is burnt in lamps by the poorer classes of the population. They use a very primitive mill, constructed of a couple of ponderous mill-stones or grinding stones, the upper one of which is turned by means of a stout beam inserted into a bore in the stone, one end being secured to the neck of a mule or bullock, which walks round and round under the lash and is always blindfolded to prevent its getting dizzy. Scooped out of the bottom stone is a deep, narrow duct, through which the oil bruised out from the olives oozes through a fine sieve into large wooden troughs, whence the oil is poured into skins or immense glass bottles firmly secured or corked, and hung up or warehoused, out of the reach of destructive rats and mice. The sound produced by the turning of the mill and the crushing of the olives is of a monotonous wheezing sort, sometimes swelling into loud notes, and then suddenly subsiding into silence. The smell is disagreeable and overpowering, and both smell and noise extend over a considerable distance amongst the surrounding hills and valleys in the height of the olive season. When pressing the inferior oils for lamps, the sieve is dispensed with, and the thick matter is allowed to settle to the bottom of ponderous earthenware jars, whence the oil is ladled out for nightly use. Whether burnt in the silver-gilt lamp of the lord of the manor, swinging from the roof of his loftier halls, or consumed in the baked clay lamp of the peasant, or shoved into a niche in his miserable hut, the stench and smoke emitted are abominable.

When the oil has been all extracted, and the olives pickled or preserved, then the peasant pays one final visit to the olive grove, hacking down such trees as are too old to yield any more crops. By the side of these he has long before planted shoots, which are now growing up into young trees, and may yield their first crop next year.

It is high time now for me to cork up my jar of olives; for whilst I have been speaking about them, I have been dipping for an olive every now and then, and I call to mind that they are of a very heating nature, and apt to produce fever, if eaten in too great quantities: especially is this the case with the black olives, the finest of which are produced in Damascus, and in size and colour resemble a fine prune with the bloom on.