At a recent party, I overheard a seasoned American husband of a Palestinian friend giving a pep talk to a couple of American guys, who were hogging all the tapenade while they grilled him on the mysterious inner workings of Arab women. "So what you're telling me," says one of the guys, "is that Arabs are basically Italians on steroids?"
I am familiar enough with the rose-tinted reputation Mediterraneans have sustained for equating the good life with a viable lifestyle. One thing that Mediterraneans share, aside from melanin and musicality, is olive oil.
I eat a lot of olives; probably the only food for snacking that's always kept in my house. Though it's been a few centuries since Europeans brought the olive to the New World, the world's 10 largest producers are still Mediterranean countries, and together they produce 95 per cent of the world's supply.
After six days in Portugal, the sensory memory that lingered most profoundly was that of bread dipped in oil from the first pressing of Portuguese olives, which was more revelatory than the Ligurian and Tuscan "olio nuovo" that I thought was as good as it could ever get. And San Sebastian's signature pintxo is the "Gilda", named after Rita Hayworth's famous character in the 1946 film, which was extremely popular during the brutal censorship of the post civil war years. Referenced for being a little bit green, a little bit spicy and a little bit salty, Gilda packs quite a punch for such a simple symphony: pickled guindilla peppers, a salt-cured anchovy and a fat green olive on a toothpick.
Small dishes of mixed olives were laid out for every meal, and my mission was to ensure there was no olive left behind. When I worked in Ireland during the summer of 2000, I spent everything I earned on tiny jars of inky, wrinkly Moroccan oil-cured olives, impossibly salty and unlike anything I'd tasted before. Early on, my fixation was with tiny, oily, mustard-coloured olives from Lebanon, and the larger water-cured ones with the cracked flesh. Half-ripened Kalamata olives are purplish and cured in vinegar. Harvested young and then brine-cured, the dazzling, bright green Castelvetrano olive has grown so popular that nobody can seem to keep it in stock. I now buy a mix of Picholine, Lucques and Arbequina olives.
Olives could also be considered a historically significant icebreaker and even a force of democracy. They're mentioned in both the New and Old Testaments and also in the Quran. Using a process that has been patented in both the US and the Middle East, olives are now being looked at for use as a renewable energy source. And the olive bar at my local grocery store is consistently voted in annual polls to be the most electric spot in town. I know a couple whose love story began when their toothpicks skewered the same feta-stuffed olive. Olives that are stuffed, with blue cheese, anchovy, garlic, almond, pimento, jalapeño, habanero, or any number of other things, are not my favourite. I'm too much of a purist. But when it comes to olives, the truth is: I'm really not all that picky.