Julie Angus with 10-month-old Leif.

Julie Angus with 10-month-old Leif.

In Quest of the Olive

The allure of the olive tree took Julie Angus on a four-month odyssey to discover the secrets of the tiny fruit

Julie Angus has a fascination with olives.

The allure of the olive tree took the Victoria resident on a four-month odyssey to discover the secrets of the tiny fruit that has seduced the world.

Sailing from Spain to the Middle East in 2011, Angus with her husband Colin and 10-month-old baby in tow, wanted to discover who ate the first olive and learned to glean oil from it, why it became such an influential commodity for many of the greatest civilizations, and how it expanded from its earliest roots in the Middle East to the rest of the world.

The result is her new book Olive Odyssey.

The idea for the expedition was piqued while Angus was visiting family in Syria, and learning more about how the olive tree had influenced her family, its wealth, culture, religion – and the great pride they took in the fruit.

“It was all very fascinating aspects of the olive tree, and the more I started to research the more I became intrigued with it all,” Angus says.

The project was based on the question that if the olive tree was taken from the Middle East and planted on distant shores, who did this and how could they prove they did it?

To find out, Angus, a molecular scientist and adventurer, wanted to retrace trading routes, stopping in the places where merchants traded and the colonies they founded and searching for olive trees that bore their mark – a genetic signature linking them to ancient Phoenicia.

The best way to do this, she surmised, was to sail through the Mediterranean by sail boat. There was only one problem: Angus had never sailed before and she and Colin had a baby to contend with.

The sailing voyage had its challenges as fierce winds and relentless waves rocked the boat – and the baby wouldn’t sleep.

“It was challenging because babies cry a lot and you don’t get much sleep,” Angus says. “Sailing with a baby is like sailing single-handed because someone always has to be with the child.”

It turned out to be one great adventure but different from her past endurance accomplishments such as being the first woman to row across the Atlantic ocean from mainland to mainland or cycling across continents.

“This trip was different from the others because it didn’t entail so much a physical endurance challenge, but it was still about exploring and discovering new things and new lands,” Angus says.

“I loved the treasure hunt of finding ancient olive trees. It took us to places we wouldn’t normally go.”

Olive Odyssey, published by Greystone Books, is available in local bookstores. Angus has two public book signings and presentations coming up in Victoria. She’ll appear at Olive the Senses on May 24 (1 to 3 p.m.) and May 25 (11 a.m. To 1 p.m.); and at Bolen Books on June 3 for a book reading and Q&A at 7 p.m.


Olive oil facts

Olive oil facts compiled by Julie Angus in her research:

• Olive oil was the original oil. It was highly valued, fought over and prized for a myriad of uses

• It was once worth its weight in silver, and cutting down an olive tree was punishable by death

• To the great civilizations of the Mediterranean olive oil was one of the most important commodities – used in everything from tanning hides to anointing the pious

• During war, it was thrown from castle walls to deep-fry attackers

• The Punic Wars were fought over olive oil trading routes.