The essence of the Mediterranean’s staple crop is captured in this recipe penned by Cato the Elder. Here, a brief history of the olive and its use in this refreshing dish.
The epityrum I made on a plate, served with olive oil over a piece of cheese.
If someone were to ask you to associate one crop with the Mediterranean, odds are you’d say the olive. You’re not alone — that’d be the first to come to mind for me, too. But why is this? What makes us almost immediately equate the olive with this region?
Maybe the image of the olive tree, gnarled and weather-beaten, conjures up landscapes of the scraggly maquis or rugged, chalk-white calanques of the Mediterranean coast. Or instead, maybe this is because the olive is so central to the cuisines and broader cultures of modern nations bordering the sea. Many popular dishes from this region include the fruit or its oil, such as pizza (or its French cousin pissaladiere), tabbouleh, and salade Niçoise, and the ten largest producers of olives in the world are countries in the Mediterranean basin.
Although olives and their oil are now lauded by the Mediterranean and keto diets, among others, for high levels of antioxidants and unsaturated fats, consumption of olives wasn’t originally rooted in health. The Romans and other ancient civilizations around the sea, for the conditions in which they lived, were more pragmatic than this.
The cultivation and consumption of this crop were ingrained in Roman culture — and Greek, Levantine, and Egyptian culture, for that matter — primarily as a result of the olive’s ubiquity. The olive tree grows all over coastal northern Africa, the Levant, and southern Europe, and much like the vine, olive trees were hardy and useful.
There’s no consensus where olives were first cultivated, but their homeland was probably somewhere along the Mediterranean’s eastern shores. In 1997, archaeologists found thousands of crushed olives at Kfar Samir, a site off the coast of Haifa in Israel. Scientists dated these remains from over 6,000 years ago! The bottom line is olives have been around for a while.
Although the flesh was certainly eaten and continues to be, olive oil was esteemed far more by the ancients. Homer, the legendary epic poet, called the oil “liquid gold” in the Odyssey. This name was apt, as olive oil in Greece was treated in much the same way as the metal was.
Winners of the Panathenaic Games, a series of sporting events held every four years in Athens (modeled on the Olympic Games) were awarded olive oil by the ton. Well, not really, but just about! The winner of the men’s stadium race (about 200 yards), would receive 100 amphorae of olive oil, or over 1,000 gallons! Based on recovered ancient inscriptions, archaeologists claim this could be equal to almost three years of a carpenter’s wages. That’s quite the heap of cash, and it proves the remarkably immense value of olive oil.
Much like wine, olive oil was marketed by vintage and varietal, with certain regions’ products praised more highly than others. In his work De naturalis historia (Natural History), Pliny the Elder extolled the virtues of the Licinian olive of Campania in southern Italy but noted that fruits from Istria (Croatia) and Baetica (southern Spain) also produced outstanding oil.
This oil was used widely for cooking. Whether added to sauces, soups, breads, or meats, ancient authors like Pliny note that olive oil centrally separated Roman cuisine from that of the Gauls and Germanic tribes to the west and north, who preferred butter or lard. Outside the kitchen, olive oil found oodles of other purposes.
It was used as fuel for lamps in homes and temples, notable because it burned cleanly and without a strong odor. Kings and emperors were anointed with it, and athletes used olive oil in bathing routines, along with a sickle-shaped implement called a strigil, to remove sweat and grime from their skin. When mixed with herbs and spices, olive oil could be used for various perfumes and medicines.
Given how highly Romans and other ancient civilizations regarded olive oil, I’m presuming there are many recipes featuring olives as their main ingredient. But as I was reading, something about this dish, epityrum, in particular piqued my interest.
What intrigued me was that, for a 2,000-odd-year-old recipe, the epityrum felt surprisingly contemporary. It’s an olive spread and seemed a lot like a tapenade, the sort of dish you could find on a Provencal table (or, for convenience’s sake, you could buy in a tin at the grocery store). Could this possibly be a precursor to modern tapenade? That we don’t know, but here is Cato’s recipe for this olive dish, taken from the pages of De agri cultura (On Farming):
Epityrum album nigrum variumque sic facito. Ex oleis albis nigris variisque nuculeos eicito.
Sic condito. Concidito ipsas, addito oleum, acetum, coriandrum, cuminum, feniculum, rutam, mentam. In orculam condito, oleum supra siet. Ita utito.
White, black, and mottled epityrum is made this way. Remove the pits from the white, black, and mottled olives. Prepare them as such: break them down, add oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue, and mint. Arrange it in a small jar, pour over oil, and eat it thus.
In the text, Cato mentions white olives. These are incredibly rare (I’d never heard of them before), so the word album could have instead referred to the olives’ state of ripeness. Especially when we can see it contrasted with the word for “black,” which could be taken to mean “mature,” it’s possible we’re dealing with ripe and unripe olives instead of specifically black and white ones.
Another tidbit about this recipe: simply by taking a closer look at this dish’s name, we’re able to learn more about how it was eaten. The word epityrum is a combination of two Greek elements: ἐπι- (epi-), a prefix meaning “on” or “over,” and τυρός (turós), meaning “cheese.” Literally, this dish means “over cheese.” So how else could I possibly serve it?
The recipe below is one you can follow yourself, but without further ado, here’s my take on this classical tapenade:
¾ cup of green olives
¾ cup of black olives
Leaves from 6 sprigs of cilantro
9-10 leaves of mint
2 tbsp of red wine vinegar
1 tbsp of olive oil, plus more for serving
¼ ground cumin
Fresh cheese for serving (optional)
If the olives aren’t pitted already, do that (I found it was easy to smack them with a meat tenderizer and peel the flesh from the broken pits). Then thinly slice the fennel, only using the white bulb. Toss those ingredients into a mortar, along with the cilantro and mint. Crush the olives into a rough paste, then slowly add the vinegar, oil, and cumin. Continue grinding the contents of the mortar, about five minutes. Spoon the tapenade over a piece of cheese, drizzle with oil, and serve.
Photos of the ingredients, the epityrum in the mortar, the finished mixture served over cheese with olive oil, and olive trees.
Oftentimes when recipes don’t call for salt, I’m concerned they won’t be adequately flavorful, but the olives compensated for salt’s absence. Not only were they briny, but bitter too! I think the vinegar was also responsible for the epityrum‘s sharpness, but I felt it was wonderfully refreshing. The herbs, especially the fennel, were nice touches — they weren’t terribly discernible flavors, but the fennel did offer a welcome peppery taste.
This recipe was delicious and pleasantly familiar in the befuddling realm of ancient cuisine. It also afforded an opportunity to learn about and cook with olives, the quintessential ancient ingredient, and what better way to prepare them than with a nice hunk of cheese?