Long a symbol of the sunny Mediterranean, the olive now grows in once less suitable terrain. A radio report this week revealed that olive trees and almond trees are taking root in Devon, England. A farmer there is in his second planting season; by next year he hopes to begin pressing olive oil. We can now anticipate unusual pairings of ingredients from traditional Greek and English recipes. How about steak and olive pie? Almond pudding? Trifle of Orzata?
That’s the good news. The bad news is what global warming portends for southern Europe, not just in terms of cuisine but in more serious matters. We once spoke alarmingly of the Sahara desert’s creep southward, but today Sicilians and Pugliesi and Calabrians wonder if their regions’ climatic patterns are not becoming Africanized by a northward drift of the desert. This means a hot, dusty, parched environment, one inhospitable to most crops, including the olive. Droughts are commonplace in these Italian provinces now. Dust storms now occasionally drop sand as far north as Verona.
A few years ago, I sipped a refreshing tonic of almond syrup and water, a southern Italian summer staple, at the Tripoli cafe in MartinaFranca . It brought back childhood memories of Roman summers, late afternoons at the seaside town of Fregene, and of my mother daintily smacking her lips. Outside on the door stoops in the area’s towns women and girls (the boys were off fishing or doing something else) were peeling fresh almonds picked in the groves or bought in bushels at the markets. It is hard to imagine this part of the world without the almond and hopefully it will never come to that.
The olive trees around Martina Franca are ancient, thousands of years old. Some of the best olive oil in Italy comes from these trees, and is exported all over the world. Many of the trees have split in two, a pair of wide, groping trunks, and begun “walking”. They are wonders of nature, possessed of the essence of life for most of the Mediterranean world since history was recorded. Let’s hope they and the almond tree continue to thrive and support a culinary culture that goes back farther than antiquity.