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The leaves are astringent and antiseptic. Internally, a decoction of 2 handsful boiled in a quart of water until reduced to half a pint has been used in the Levant in obstinate fevers. Both leaves and bark have valuable febrifugal qualities.
The oil is a noutishing demulcent and laxative. Externally, it relieves pruritus, the effects of stings and burns, and is a good vehicle for liniments. As a lubricant it is valuable in skin, muscular, joint, kidney and chest complaint, or abdominal chill, typhoid and scarlet fevers, plague and dropsies.
Delicate babies absorb its nourishing properties well through the skin.
Internally, it is a laxative and disperser of acids, and a mechanical antidote to irritant poisons.
In the past, olive oil was extracted in hydraulic presses, like most other vegetable oils (see sesame); from that time stems the term “cold-pressed” for the first fractions with best flavour, which were extracted at low temperature and less than 50 bar pressure (Italian olio extra vergine di oliva, Greek partheno elaiolado [παρθένο ελαιόλαδο]).
Today, however, olive oil is almost exclusively obtained by centrifugation, which allows much better yield without applying elevated temperature. Consequently, almost all olive oil in the food sector is “cold-pressed” olive oil. The very best quality is produced without centrifugation, by sedimentation only; it is rare and expensive. The best quality produced in mass scale is called native olive oil extra in the countries of the European Union; “native extra” loosely corresponds to the more historic term “extra vergine”. Both “native olive oil extra” and the next quality class, “native olive oil”, must be produced without applying heat, and must not be refined. Products called simply “olive oil”, however, have usually been refined and often contain small amounts of native oils to improve the flavour.
Olive oil is composed, like all vegetable oils (see also sesame), of fatty acids bound to the alcohol glycerol. Typically, the following fatty acids are found in olive oil: 66% oleic acid, 12% linoleic acid, 9% palmitic acid, 5% eicosenoic acid and 5% palmitoleic acid. Olive oil may contain up to 1.5% of an acyclic triterpene hydrocarbon, squalene.
The most important parameter for the quality of olive oils is the content of free fatty acids, which must be below 0.8% for “native olive oil extra”, but may be up to 2% for “native olive oil”. Free fatty acids are formed in the ground olive paste by action of enzymes (lipases) contained in the olive fruits. The only way to control their formation is cooling and quick extraction. Free fatty acids are unwanted because they lower the smoke point and contribute off-flavour.
The desired flavour of olive oil is dominated by aldehydes (hexanal and 2-hexenal). Furthermore, higher aldehyds, primary alkohols (mainly C6 compounds like hexanol, 2-hexene-1-ol, 3-hexene-1-ol) and their acetic acid esters contribute to the characteristic olive oil aroma. Lastly, hemiterpenoid volatiles were found (3-methyl butanal, 4-methoxy-2-methyl-butanethiol, ethyl esters of 2- and 3-methyl butyric acid). The flavour components, however, depend on variety and geographic origin of the oil.
The typical olive oil colour is due to plant pigments of the carotenoid series (β-carotene, phytofluene, ξ-carotene, lutein, auroxanthin, luteoxanthin, violaxanthin, neoxanthin, neochrome), which contribute a yellow hue, and greenish to brown porphyrines (chlorophylls a and b, and pheophytins a and b). Chlorophyll content may be as high as 10 ppm.
Olive is a loan from Latin oliva “olive; olive tree”, which itself was derived from Greek: elais [ἐλαίς] “olive tree” and elaia [ἐλαία] (from older elaiva [ἐλαίϝα]) “olive; olive tree”; furthermore elaion [ἔλαιον] “olive oil”. These words are not Indo-European in origin; it is generally accepted that they were transferred to Greek by some Eastern Mediterranean language, often assumed to be Semitic. Yet as we don't know the botanical origin of the olive tree, the name could, together with the tree, have travelled from more distant Eastern regions. There is a curious connection to the Draviadian languages which are today spoken in Southern India: Sesame, an important local source of vegetable oil, bears names that are remarably similar to Greek elaia, e.g., Tamil ellu (pronounced yellu [எள்ளு]).
Most of the contemporary European languages have a word for “olive” that derives, directly or indirectly, from Latin oliva. Examples are German Olive, Polish oliwka, Slovenian oljka, Frisian oliif, Latvian olīvas and Dutch olijf. In some languages, the name got slightly modified, e.g., Lithuanian alyvos and Albanian ullir.
Flowering olive branch
Only in the languages of the Iberic peninsula, the Latin name was superseeded by an Arabic loan: Spanish aceituna and Portuguese azeitona both come from Arabic al-zeytun [الزيتون] “the olive”; on the other hand, Spanish oliva and Portuguese oliveira refer to the tree, not to the fruit. See also capers for more examples of Arabic loans in Iberic languages.
The Arabic word zeytun [زيتون] is cognate to Hebrew zayith [זית] “olive” and might derive from a Common Semitic root signifying “to be prominent”. Due to the spread of Islâm, the word was transferred to many more languages, from the Mediterranean (Portuguese azeitona) to Africa (Swahili zeituni) and Asia (Georgian zetis [ზეთის], Armenian jiteni [ձիթենի], Kurdish zaitun [زةيتوون], Farsi zeitun [زیتون], Kazakh zäytun [зәйтун], Tamil saidun [சைதூண்]). Another, more distantly related word is Maltese żebbuġ which is suspected to derive from a term for “olive” in the Berber language, which also belongs to the Semitic language subfamily.
Due to the enormous importance of olives for both the Greek and the Roman cultures, their name entered nearly every European language via Latin oleum “oil” as generic word for liquid fats, e.g., English oil, French huile, German Öl, Italian olio, Dutch olie, Polish olej and Finnish öljy.
Some Slavic names of olive, e.g., Bulgarian maslina [маслина] “olive”, have an exactly opposite history: Maslina derives from maslo [масло] “oil, fat”, which originally meant “butter” (from a Common Slavonic root MAZ- “spread”). Words related to Bulgarian maslina were loaned to some non-Slavic languages, e.g., Romanian măslin and Yiddish masline.
The term maslo [масло], however, is not used for olive oil in Bulgarian, which is instead known as zehtin [зехтин] (from Turkish zeytin “olive”). Vegetable oils are often called olio [олио] in Bulgarian.
Similarly, the Iberic names for “oil” (Spanish aceite, Portuguese azeite besides óleo) derive from the local names of olive, aceituna and azeitona, respectively.
In other parts of the world, the generic names of cooking fats may also be derived from whatever oilseed dominates local cookery. Examples are provided by coconut and sesame.