If you’ve tried plucking a ripe olive right from the tree and taking a bite, you’d know the truth – it has a horribly bitter taste. Image Credit: Unsplash/Emre

At the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, is an olive tree. But it’s no ordinary tree; legend has it the Greek deity Athena planted it herself.

Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can find the word ‘olive’.

The sacred Athenian olive tree has reportedly seen incredible historic moments in its life. According to the works of famous ancient Greek geographer Pausanias, when the Acropolis was burned down in 480BC during a war, the tree didn’t just survive – it sprouted a new branch over four feet long. In following centuries, invaders came and went, and the olive tree suffered many mutilations and fires. But the Greeks, especially devotees of Athena, always saved a sprig of the tree to be planted later.

The most recent planting occurred in 1952, when members of the American School of Archaeology saved a branch of the tree and replanted it in the same spot, following the wake of destructions by the Nazis in World War II.

As beautiful and resilient as the olive tree is, if you’ve tried plucking a ripe olive right from the tree and taking a bite, you’d know the truth – it has a horribly bitter taste.

According to a July 2016 report in the National Geographic, olives contain oleuropein, a phenolic compound that’s bitter enough to ‘shrivel your teeth’. This bitterness is deliberate – the olive tree uses it to fend off hungry mammals and invasive microorganisms. The only reason olives are even dispersed in the wild is because of birds, who swallow the olives whole (and therefore, avoid the bitterness).

So, why didn’t ancient humans just ditch the olive at first taste? Olives have long been considered one of the best fruits, not just in Greece, but in places like Syria and Turkey, where they possibly first originated. In fact, historians think people began cultivating the olive tree over 7,000 years ago; olive pits were even discovered in ancient tombs around the Levant. So, why have olives been beloved for thousands of years?

One major reason is olive oil. The outer flesh of the olive comprises up to 30 per cent oil – an impressive concentration. In fact, it’s why the English word ‘oil’ comes from the Greek ‘elaia’, which means olive. Once extraction of olive oil was possible, it became a hallmark of daily living – it has been used in cooking, cosmetics, medicine, and even in the original Olympic torch.

Today, about 90 per cent of the world’s olive harvest goes into making olive oil, according to National Geographic. The rest – green and black – are table olives.

Green olives are picked when they are unripe, and then cured. If left on the tree, the olives turn purple. To get glossy, jet-black olives, however, you’d have to turn away from Nature and head to the lab. These are basically green olives, cured in an alkaline solution, and then treated with oxygen and an iron compound called ferrous gluconate.

Do you love olives? Play today’s Spell It and let us know at games@gulfnews.com.