The Revival Of The Rare White Olive

greek-white-olives

If you love tasting rare foods, search for white olives next time you’re traveling through southern Italy. The olive and its oil are said to taste almost sweet, with little of the bitterness found in conventional green and black olives. Here’s our post on olives you love to eat.

The tree (Leucocarpa, or Leucolea) is a mutation introduced to the south of Italy by the Greeks around 800 BCE, when they ruled the region.

Used by the ancients in worship, the oil from the unique olive was associated with purity because of the fruit’s delicate white color.  The Church pressed its oil for sacramental purposes for the same reason. That’s why the remaining white olive trees are usually found in old gardens belonging to monasteries or churches. We’ve written about the history of olives in this post.

Italian knights belonging to the Order of St. John brought Leucocarpa to Malta while the order occupied Malta (1530 to 1798). During the Renaissance, white olives were known across Europe as “Maltese pearls” – indicating that even then, they were considered a unique treat.

Why are there albino white olives?

Why the white color? Antonella Pasqualone, professor of food science and technology at the University of Bari in southern Italy, explains:

“White olives originate from mutations affecting the production of anthocyanins, those pigments typical of what you see in conventional ripened olives, so that at the full ripening stage they do not become black.

The Godfather of white olives

After centuries of neglect, Leucocarpa still grows in southern Italy, mostly in Calabria; and in Greece, North Africa, Malta, and spots along the Mediterranean coast. But as each region knows it by a local name, and the olives aren’t not produced in any organized way, the search for this exotic  variety takes real foodie detective work.

sam cremona, white olive looking at white olive tree in Malta

Sam Cremona inspecting a white olive tree

But don’t despair of tracking down this delicacy. The efforts of one individual, Sam Cremona, a Maltese olive grower, has led to the Project for Revival of the Indigenous Maltese Olive in cooperation with Malta’s Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Environment. He’s known as an olive-ologist, an olive oil sommelier.

Now thanks to Cremona, where there were once only three white olive trees in Malta, there are now 70.

Maybe other Mediterranean-climate countries will take notice and begin cultivating white olives, too.

Image of white olives via Greece High Definition

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