Carol Firenze’s expertise as an olive oil consultant is evident in her book The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to Do with Olive Oil. She tells us that cultivated olive trees first appeared around 6000 BC in the area of Syria. Named liquid gold by Homer, olive oil was just as important to the economy in ancient times as oil is to our economy today. Olive oil was the lifeblood of ancient Mediterranean cultures. These cultures used olive oil in lamps for light, to treat leprosy, to massage the skin of elephants, to anoint kings, to perform religious ceremonies, to cure ulcers and cholera, and to cook as noted in Apicius’s De Re Coquinaria (On Cooking) in the first century AD. Firenze demonstrates quite well the history of the olive culture and the importance of olive oil to both ancient and modern civilizations.
Firenze believes that the origins of the olive tree are mythical, mystical, and legendary. One Greek legend tells about Athena who competed against Poseidon when challenged by Zeus to provide the Greeks with the most useful gift. Athena won the contest as she provided the olive tree, which was hailed by the Gods for its oil, fruit, and wood and as the symbol of peace, wisdom, and prosperity (9). The Egyptians believed that the goddess Isis taught man how to extract oil from olives. The Romans credit the goddess Minerva for teaching them the art of cultivating the olive tree. Olive oil was also sacred to Christ, Moses, and Muhammad and is a crucial element in sacred rites and religious ceremonies.
In my favorite chapter, Firenze describes the ancient Roman and modern olive oil classification system and defines the terms virgin olive oil, olive oil, and olive-pomace oil. She also explains the first cold pressed and cold extraction processes; the difference between filtered and unfiltered oils; estate grown, blended, and light olive oils (which, I learned, does not mean fewer calories); and, the laws that require seals both of authenticity and the country of origin. She also provides a discussion about the regulations and standards placed on olive oil by its main producers: Italy, France, Spain, Greece, and the United States (California).
In the remaining ten chapters, Firenze provides 101 things to do with olive oil. I can’t name them all here but some of these “things” includes the process for hydrating pearls and polishing diamonds, lubricating guns, fixing stuck zippers, raising good cholesterol, preventing gallstones, removing eye makeup, treating dandruff, enhancing sexual pleasure, soothing diaper rash, preventing hairballs in cats, concocting magical potions, making flavored oil, and, of course, cooking. These remedies for cleaning, preserving (including Joe DiMaggio’s baseball bat), and repairing are intertwined with recipes from Firenze’s family and friends (using olive oil, of course) along with formulas that use olive oil to maintain beauty and good health.
Firenze both informs and entertains. The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to Do with Olive Oil is a worthy read for both olive oil aficionados and neophytes. You’ll be left with a host of “things” to try— using olive oil, of course.