Field of Science

The olive

The two primary crops of this region of Tuscany are olives and grapes.  About 98% of olives go into oil production, and virtually 100% of the grapes become wine. Their priorities seem about right. The humble olive is a drupe, a stone fruit, and is in the olive family with a number of well known ornamentals: privet, forsythia, fringe tree, and ash trees (atypical samara fruits). Like all drupes there is a fleshy outer portion and a pit consisting of a stony fruit layer enclosing a seed. In the olive the fleshy fruit wall is lipid rich, and olive oil is produced simply by squeezing the oil out of the ripe fruits. The trees are in fruit right now, but the harvest won't be until November. Locals say that an Italian family uses about 40 L of olive oil a year, which probably takes about the same number of trees to produce. You really can't eat olives right off the tree because the fruits contain a bitter oleoresin; sun drying, salting, fermenting, or treating with lye (American style) to break down the oleoresin, which is not lipid soluble thankfully. These are not your eating variety of olives, but they are kind of cute.

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