Guest post by Annalisa Salis
In Sardinia we have a lot of wild olive trees, and some are believed to be several centuries – sometimes thousands – of years old. The oldest one is found in Luras, called S’Ozzastru (The Wild Olive Tree) and it is said to be about 4,000 years old.
Another one is in the village of Santa Maria Navarrese and it grows next to a little church of the XI century. I wish I could tell you a legend about that tree, but for now I can only tell you a legend about the church.
A long time ago there was a beautiful princess in Navarra who was in love with the stable man of the king. When the king found this out, he locked the princess in a tower. One night the princess’ lover managed to help her escape from the tower and together they went to the harbour, where a boat was waiting for them and where they would travel to a distant land to start a new life together. While they were still at sea a terrible storm broke in, so the princess prayed Saint Mary to rescue them from a shipwreck, promising to build a church dedicated to her. The sea suddenly calmed down, the sky cleared and after a few days the ship made landfall on a beautiful beach. This is where the church dedicated to Saint Mary still is.
Unfortunately I could not find more Sardinian legends linked to the olive tree…so let’s wander a bit more across the Mediterranean!
The secret of the Istrian Bianchera
In late Autumn, in the Pirano countryside, children used to climb on the olive trees. For a few days, parents would not send them to school because the olives were ripe and their harvest was more important than studying. Children would pick the fruits and put them in the bags that were hanging from their necks. Everybody knew that the bags would be full much sooner on the Istrian Biancheras’ olive trees. “Why do you carry so many olives?” the children used to ask her. The Istrian Bianchera was happy to have children among her branches, but she thought it was unfair that they had to miss their lessons at school because of the harvest. For this reason she would teach them new things and she would challenge them. Living exposed to nature’s harshness and being used to the scorching sun as well as to the piercing cold of the bora, the Mediterranean Northern wind, the Istrian Bianchera stood well rooted in the ground and would not reveal her knowledge too easily. If children wanted to know her secret, they had to sing her folk songs and had to know the names of at least five of her local olive tree sisters. Every day they would know and name new ones: Storta, Buga, Oliva minuta, Carbonia, Matta… They listed to them, they sang and they kept on asking in vain for the Bianchera’s secret. Only when the very last olive was picked from her branches, the Bianchera would gift the children with a Mediterranean ancient legend.
One day, many centuries ago, all the trees of the world gathered in order to choose their king. Soon they all agreed that the king had to be the olive tree. They let him know their decision, but the olive tree thoughtfully said: “My dear colleagues, I am very honoured by your decision, but I cannot accept the crown you offer me.”
All the trees were surprised and asked “Why? How come?”
“My mission for human kind is too important to waste my time governing a kingdom,” the olive tree explained. In fact he preferred to grow big, blossom and then ripen with abundant fruits.
“I am a variety of olive tree that still honours the decision of our ancestor and this is why I carry so many olives”, the Istrian Bianchera proudly explained to the curious children. “In memory of having renounced the crown, our oil still carries its characteristic bitter spicy flavour. But this is not because of sadness, but rather because of pure joy. Istrian Biancheras olive trees are really happy to offer the most abundant harvests in the remotest Northern part of the Mediterranean. Because of this happiness, and together with our local olive tree sisters, we gift the people of Northern Istria with the tastiest and healthiest olive oil”.
Legend from North East Italy collected by Alberto Pucer, Istrske štorije, 2013 (Storie istriane, 2013). English translation by Annalisa Salis.
The first olive tree
There is also a Greek legend about the first olive tree on Earth. I suggest one of the different versions.
A long time ago the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon were disputing over the sovereignty of the Attika, and they asked Zeus, the king of the gods, to preside over their competition. Zeus asked them to come up with the best gift for the people of Attika. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and there a powerful horse appeared, able to run fast and to be invincible in any battle. Athena stuck her spire on a rock and there an olive tree was born, carrying the fruits that would be able to cure and nourish the body and to give light in the darkest nights. Zeus decided that the olive tree was the most useful and peaceful gift, so Athena ruled on Attika and the city of Athens was dedicated to her.
The legend of a recipe: the farinata di ceci
Since we are talking about how precious olive oil is, here is an Italian recipe where olive oil is one of the main ingredients, and the recipe itself has a legend.
After winning the naval battle of Meloria in 1284, the ships of Genoa found themselves in the middle of a terrible storm. They were carrying many sacks of chickpea flour as well as barrels of olive oil in their storage and once the storm had ceased the sailors found a miserable mesh of chickpea, oil and sea water. Since they had nothing else to eat, they had to make the most out of that and get along with the terrible purée. But some sailors really couldn’t stand it, and would leave it drying in the open air. This is how they found out that when the mesh was left under the hot sun it would become golden, crispy and very tasty. Once the ships were back to Genoa, the recipe was improved and the mesh baked in the oven. Soon it became so famous that in 1447 an official decree established that for making the traditional farinata only the best olive oil had to be used.
And here is the recipe:
• 300g chickpea flour
• 900ml water
• Extra virgin olive oil: 50g to add to the mesh and another 70g to for oiling the trays
• 10g sea salt
• Black pepper (optional)
• 3 round metal trays, about 35mm diameter
Put the flour in a bowl and make a well in the middle. Gradually add the water, while stirring with a whisk to avoid the formation of clumps. Once it’s well mixed, cover with cling film and let the mesh rest for a long while – between 5 and 10 hours – at room temperature and stirring every now and again. After this time some foam may have formed on the surface and it should be removed with the perforated spoon. Then add the salt and the 50g olive oil and mix it well.
Pour the rest of the olive oil in the 3 trays and add the mesh with a ladle, making sure that the excess of olive oil spreads well from the borders of the tray to the middle, on top of the dough. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 250º for about 10 minutes. Then move the tray under the grill and bake for another 15 minutes, till the surface of the farinata is crispy and golden. Sprinkle the surface with black pepper (optional) and serve hot.