As I walked through the abandoned olive orchard, heavy with fall fruit, I thought of Jesus walking through the wheat field plucking the berries for a snack (Mt 12:1 NRSV). I plucked a ripe olive off the branch and took a bite. Instantly, I felt as if I bit into the devils fruit as a bitter and puckering sensation filled my mouth. With no water to wash my mouth with, I had to endure the nasty sensation and taste until I got home. Surely, I thought, olives must be the devils food and I was being punished for partaking of someone else’s harvest.
Curing the bitter olive
How could it be that the humble olive, from which so much goodness flows even in ancient times, was so foul to my mouth? Obviously some sort of transformation must occur to the olive to make it consumable. What magical and mystical secrets did ancient civilization possess that I, of college education and seamless connection to the internet, did not understand? As someone who has high esteem for sacred religious rituals that link our modern society to the roots of our faith such as the Eucharist and Ramadan, I was perplexed that biting into a simple olive would slam the door of ancient tradition so hard in my face.
Similar to reading holy texts to understand your religion, I researched and found out that olives must be cured before they are presentable to the palate. Not unlike wine, olives must undergo a fermentation process to convert the bitter compound oleuropein into flavors that are acceptable to our taste buds. While we commonly throw around words such as yeast, fermentation, and oleuropein, there is still a certain bit of mystery that surrounds simple foods like flour, grape juice and olives being transformed into into bread, wine and edible olives.
When we participate in ancient religious rituals we are connected back to the roots of our faith. There are certain miracles of God that occur with food processing and preparation as well. In all instances, the transformation must include our willingness to work and the presence of the unseen hand of nature.
The Romans had no Food Network show
With this in mind, I set out to cure my first batch of “free range” olives that I had gathered. There are several recipes and specific sets of instruction for how to cure olives. I chose one from a woman who eschewed the formulaic recipes of measurements for more of a “touch and feel” approach. As she noted, not all of her first attempts worked and I suspect this was the experience of people several thousands years ago. Sometimes trial and errors are the best approach for learning.
Baptismal brine of the olive
As of this writing, I had harvested, washed, cut, packed and filled my jars of olives in salt water. It was interesting that the morning after packing them in the jars I noticed that the olives had already shrunk in the by 5% – 10%. I will take that as a good sign. Perhaps my briny baptism of the olives is already suppressing the bitterness of their souls.
I will not be disappointed if after 3 months my olive curing process yields no edible fruit. Not all paths lead to a fruitful transformation. Just the little time I have spent picking and curing has added one more little thread of connection to civilizations that placed a greater value on the food they saw as a gift from God.
Food for the village and our souls
When we actually spend time making bread, wine, or curing olives, it’s possible to get a glimpse and feel for the reverence that prepared meals had to cultures where a bountiful harvest and important food preservation often meant the difference between survival and extinction. It then becomes a little clearer why there are so many analogies, metaphors and parables around food and transforming our soul. If the mystery of God’s hand can transform a bitter olive into a preserved nutritious food source, certainly that same spirit can lead a simple human to enlightenment.
We want to read about your experiences with food, transformation and religious journeys. Please feel free to submit your musings and observations to Polyrel. When we share the olives we have cured, our friends learn about the gifts within us.
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