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Life, Death and the Olive Branch

April 17, 2014

The week leading up to Easter in Italy is an occasion of much fanfare and numerous events.  This holiday is dominated as a religious celebration but that does not stop the Easter Bunny concept one bit.  Chocolate Easter eggs of all sizes (gigantic ones nearly as tall as me) are filled with surprises for the lucky recipient.  The grocery store aisles are packed with varying themes and quality.   Easter is bigger than Christmas in Italy.  Children receive major gifts as part of the celebration.  From a religious perspective and the origins of this holiday, it is a story of life, death and rising from the dead.

I bring up death, not in anyway to focus on the morbid, but to concentrate on things to celebrate.  This past Sunday was Palm Sunday, what is its significance?  It marks the beginning of Holy Week or the Week of Passion as the week before Easter and it was the day Jesus entered Jerusalem.  It is said that his followers laid palm branches on the ground for him to walk upon as he entered the city.  He entered into the city on a donkey and was considered the Prince of Peace. He did not arrive on a horse, which was considered at the time an animal of war.

To honor this moment, tradition began to bless the palms of the native land and in turn, worshipers have taken to receiving palms, often making them in a form of a cross.  In Torre di Palme, residents received and carried the palms from the olive tree. This tree is indigenous to this region, along with the tropical palms, but the olive branch also has a cultural meaning of peace. During a special mass last night the priests also blessed olive oil from each commune to protect them against disease and suffering. For centuries the olive tree, branches, leaves, and oil are traced back to healing and peace. Scientifically, we can see why with the numerous anti-oxidants in real, true extra virgin olive oil.

So during our village wide recognition of Palm Sunday, a dear friend of ours father died. He was born and raised in this village. He was 80 years old. He was related nearly to all of the residents (in one form or another) in Torre di Palme. There are only 68 residents in the Torre di Palme proper. As I am holding my olive palm branches I look for significance in nature and feel proud to be a part of something that has meaning. The olive tree has a very, very long history throughout the Mediterranean. When I use our olive oil it is not from new hybrid trees but ones that are old and varieties that have not been changed to accommodate modern day production. They bring a depth in flavor, but also depth in meaning. We are eating an ancient fruit and processing it in nearly the same method from centuries (if not longer) ago. Much like wine, less intervention is best when you have quality fruit.  But even with the best in life, we cannot escape death. Our vices as humans seem to get us in the end. But in the small villages, such as one as Torre di Palme, death is viewed as a part of life and immortality is not considered an option.  I have been to more funerals since living in Torre di Palme than my entire life of living in the United States.  Discussing this with some of my Italian friends in the village, they are very matter of fact ... "Well, there's a lot of old people here" or more philosophically, "it's just a part of life." 

Between all of the religious messages circling around Easter there are also lots of celebrations and temptations at every bar and pasticceria.  Special desserts and colored eggs, flower motifs and cute little Easter bunnies are ablaze in the store fronts and window displays.  As I ooh and ah at all the pretty and delicious desserts, religious messages are running side by side. I'm not Catholic but I can appreciate the message of peace, hope, well-being and the practice of being virtuous.  Through living in a foreign country I bump into history everyday.  I also continued research stories and ancient history frequently references the olive, olive tree and extra virgin olive oil as something truly special. I begin to wonder if I am more intrigued with it’s history or it’s current, modern day health considerations. For a millennium the health benefits have not changed. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a magical concoction and one of nature’s gifts for a longer, healthier and more flavorful life? Not a magic potion, but a major contributor to longer living. At the macelleria where I buy my meat, my butcher told me he takes a spoonful of extra virgin olive oil every single morning due to high cholesterol. He says, “Don’t take any other oil. They do nothing. ONLY real extra virgin olive oil ‘crudo’ … raw, not cooked.”  (And then he adds jokingly, it also helps if you don't cook with "lardo" and "strutto" .... animal fat.)

La vita é breve, mangia bene …. Life is short, eat well.

Wishing you all a wonderful Easter holiday weekend, whether it’s a feast or a simple meal among friends and family. “Pace” … “Peace”.  If you can’t find olive branches to decorate your Easter table, celebrate with the taste of Casal Cristiana Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil to bring you a healthier spring!

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