The olive has shaped Greek life and history, and continues to do so, like no other agricultural product. In folklore, the olive is rife with symbolism.
Sharing olives and bread is an act of friendship in Greece. The olive branch, of course, is the universal symbol of peace.
Olives have been savored from prehistoric times in Greece, although most likely they were eaten uncured, plucked instead off the tree, or from the ground, wrinkled and soft.
Over time, of course, people worked out how to cure olives so that they tasted better--i.e., less bitter--and so that they could be stored for long periods of the year.
The earliest and most basic way of doing this was simply to salt them.
By Homeric times, olives had become a very important staple food, one that sustained farmers, shepherds, and travellers alike. To this day, olives, together with bread or rusks and a little cheese, comprise an important part of the traditional Greek farmer's midday snack in the field.
The ancients Greeks were avid cooks and culinary experimenters, and they devised many different ways to cure and flavour olives. They knew, for example, that in addition to salting olives, they could also store olives in olive oil or in vinegar. They made salt brines and also preserved olives in grape must and even honey or combinations of wine and honey. They used aromatic herbs, such as wild fennel and oregano, to season olives. Many of these techniques survive to this day. High technology has not really touched the ways in which olives are cured or seasoned. In fact, cured olives in modern Greece often go by the same names that the ancient Greeks gave to them.
Olives had a unique place on the ancient table because they were both a food eaten by, but also necessary to the survival of, the masses. But they were also one of the most important early "appetizers."
Olives came under the category of prosfagio, or food that was meant to be consumed before the actual meal. To this day, by and large, that is still the role that olives play on the Greek table. Greeks offer them often with a little ouzo, or other eau de vie, as a means of whetting, but not sating, the appetite.
OLIVES IN THE TRADITIONAL GREEK KITCHEN
For all its illustrious history and nutritional value, the olive is used sparingly in traditional Greek cooking.
Olives appear in a whole array of salads. They are delicious matched with all sorts of vegetables, such as fresh ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and more. They are wonderful with vegetables preserved in brine or olive oil. Greeks use olives in some sauces, namely tomato-based sauces that are served over pasta or with meats, poultry, and fish.
There are several breads and pies which call for olives. In some parts of the country, stews often include olives. One such dish comes from the Ionian island of Zakynthos, where potatoes are stewed with onions, tomatoes, and black olives.
Another traditional dish calls for chicken stewed with green olives and feta. On
the mainland, olives are roasted and served as a meze, and in Crete, one of the most delicious preparations is oftes elies— roasted olives.
In the last few years, the olive has caught the imagination of contemporary chefs, so that even in the contemporary Greek kitchen olives are everywhere: In the skillet and in the pan, in breads, pies, braised dishes, sauces, stuffings, dips, and more. One interesting evolution hearkens back to the sweet-savory flavor combinations of antiquity:
Olives matched with dried figs and herbs seem to be a combination growing in popularity, in stuffed poultry dishes, in breads, and as a dip or condiment.