By Julie Angus. Greystone, 321 pp, hardcover
Like ours today, the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean ran on oil. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans all built their economies on its production and transportation; it provided them with everything from food and light to cosmetics. In some ways, however, our predecessors were more advanced than we are: their oil was a renewable resource, harvested from living trees.
As Julie Angus details in her fascinating but flawed new book, Olive Odyssey: Searching for the Secrets of the Fruit That Seduced the World, the olive tree is still a source of wealth and sustenance in much of the Mediterranean basin. Olea europaea provides not only olives and olive oil but fuel for cooking, timber for building, and silvery-green foliage for ritual occasions. Although its preeminence among plants has been challenged by upstarts such as wheat, soy, and corn, it’s one of the oldest cultivated crops, and remains one of the most important.
Angus has a personal connection to this story: the Comox-based biologist comes from a long line of Syrian olive farmers, and part of her purpose in researching Olive Odyssey was to reconnect with the agrarian tradition her father abandoned when he opted for urban life in Canada. She was also interested in establishing whether those noted seafarers, the Phoenicians, were responsible for introducing the olive to the western Mediterranean (DNA testing suggests they were), and in enjoying a sailing vacation with her husband and young son.
It’s a lot to cram into one book.
Angus excels in tracing the history of the olive: any botanist or cook will walk away from Olive Odyssey well-informed on the plant and its products. But with a civil war raging in Syria (and an infant in tow), the closest she gets to her ancestral grove is Israel. The adventure aspect of the story also falls flat: her brief, wind-powered journey from Spain to Sardinia is remarkable only in its lack of drama.
Olive Odyssey would have benefited from more rigorous pruning in a couple of other respects: Angus tends to repeat herself, and her unchecked use of spellcheck provides a few embarrassing faux pas. (Maquis, for instance, is the shrubby vegetation of the Mediterranean coast, while a marquis is a European aristocrat of middling rank.)
But never mind. An important story is told in these pages, and it’s told well enough to be worth one’s time.