A humble olive stands in my back garden. No olives on it this year. No hard labour of a harvest for me.
But in a couple of weeks, Zejtun, a village in Malta’s South, celebrates the start of the olive harvest in its now annual Zejt iz-Zejtun festival held this year on 24th – 25th September. The event is about the humble but precious olive in all its glory from oil to olive breads and is a window on the industry in times past in Malta.
Zejtun has delved into its history to pull out pedigree origins to stake its claim to hold the olive festival: it takes its name from the Sicilian Arabic for “olive”- zaytun and Zejtun’s etymology also stems from similarly sounding words for oil in Spanish and Portuguese, “aceituna” and “azeituna” respectively. Zebbug means olive in Maltese, but the town of that name wasn’t first to bag the olive festival it seems.
I am always fascinated by the revival of interest in the olive oil industry in Malta, which dates back to Roman times. Especially as the islands today aren’t exactly thick with olive groves. A large olive grinding stone was found near Burmarrad at San Pawl Milqi on the site of a largish agricultural settlement with villa. Apparently, four agricultural villas dating from Roman times and showing evidence of olive oil pressing have been discovered on the islands. You can see the San Pawl Milqi stone in the courtyard of the Mdina Cathedral Museum.
There’s been an olive planting programme taking shape though: roadsides are home to a number of olive reforestation schemes, mainly because the trees make an attractive evergreen vista. But there is another initiative that’s seeing Malta revive a truly ancient type of olive that can trace its roots to those Roman trees. Some 1,000-year-old olives in Malta’s north have provided the grafts to recreate that Ur-alt native olive which, it’s being proven, has some unique antibacterial properties. Farmers have been keen to plant and harvest it. So the tide is turning and Malta is aiming to be a producer of a niche oil of exceptional quality and with some interesting properties.
Health benefits aside, my simple favourite pleasure in olives lies in Tapenade, a king of dips. Tapenade is the Catalan and Provencal name for the gutsy paste made with capers, anchovies and black olives crushed up with a twist of lemon and olive oil. No need for a recipe for this one, just rough measures:
- three handfuls of pitted olives (buy whole and pit them yourself for a better taste – painstaking but worth it)
- half a handful of capers (rinsed from salt or brine)
- as many jar anchovies strips as you fancy
Then whiz all these up in a food processor (or crush by hand in a large mortar) and add a squeeze of lemon juice and glugs of olive oil while whizzing until the Tapenade takes shape into a firm paste. Top with some chopped parsley. Add chopped fresh chili if you like it hot. Grab some Maltese Galletti crackers and set off on the black olive serenade! Drink water all night if you put in lots of anchovies!
Want to see and taste Malta’s olives?
Zejtun Olive Harvest Festival – more details here
ta’ Zeppi – a working olive farm in Fawwara, near Siggiewi, that produces its own organic oil and runs tours and tastings by appointment. Details here
Wardija Olive Oil: Sammy Cremona is the man credited with reviving Malta’s ancient olive root stock, a type of olive unique to Malta, with the help of EU, government, and private sector funding. His own olive farm in Wardija offers tours, tastings and a typical Maltese farmers lunch. By appointment only and usually for small groups. His wife Matty is a well-known local cookery expert. Call Sammy Cremona on: +356 79582294. See more about Sammy and the project here.
Merille Eco Tours – This is a niche, eco-tourism company that offers highly informative and off-the-beaten track eco tours including olive oil production and tasting and other itineraries including Maltese delicacy tastings. Details of the Olive tour here. It caters to small groups and individuals. Until 30 October, Merille is offering Malta InsideOut site users a 20% discount on its Maltese delicacy tasting tour. See Special Offers for details.
Photo: header courtesy Avlyxz