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When I study a plant, I like to work with it in as many ways as I can. Depending on the plant, I might tincture it, make a syrup, facial steam or some bath salts with it and – as long as it’s safe – I will definitely eat and/or drink it! Yes, even if I know it’s going to taste awful (I’m looking at you, mugwort tea…)
There are two things I can harvest from the olive tree in our garden – olives and leaves. (To learn why anyone would want to harvest olives leaves, and to get a little herb-nerdy, check out last week’s post Olive Materia Medica.) This year is my first time working with either, although I have been a fan of eating olives for most of my life!
First, the olives. The Internet is a baffling mine of conflicting information when it comes to preserving olives – there are so many techniques and sub-techniques! So I gave up and called our uncle in Kerkyra to ask him what people there did. He told me about two methods. The first involved a raw egg, and I ruled that out without a moment’s hesitation! The second was to score the olives with a knife and soak them in plain water for a week, changing the water every day. Then, keep them in brine for three months. This is currently where our olives are – resting in salty water till the New Year. Seasonal living definitely teaches patience in more ways than one! I’ll let you know how they turn out…
Olive leaf tincture
Next, the olive leaves. The Herbal Academy, the school I study with, advises that the best time to harvest olive leaves is on a not-too-warm autumn day ‘to obtain the highest levels of active phytochemicals, particularly oleuropein’. So that’s what I did. I didn’t take much – that’s the golden rule, right? Never take more than you need (and never take more than half, but that was N/A as I wasn’t about to pick half the leaves off an olive tree!)
As I mentioned in my last post, eating olive leaves is NOT advisable, but we can tincture them or make an infusion. It’s easy to make a simple tincture. All you need is the plant matter (washed and dried) and alcohol that is 40% proof or higher. (I usually use vodka or tsipouro, although the second one gives a flavoured tincture.) There are ways to measure how much plant matter to use in a tincture, and there are various formulas for this, but I prefer the ‘folk method’. This is imprecise, but it has served people without weights and measures for centuries, so I guess it’s fine for an amateur like me. As these olive leaves were fresh, I filled the jar about three-quarters full. If they had been dried, I would have used less. Then, I topped the jar off with alcohol, sealed it and labelled it.
Much as I would have liked to leave the olive leaves whole for a pretty photo, they will release their properties into the alcohol more easily if the surface area is larger, so I snipped them up.
The olive leaves have to sit (macerate) in the alcohol for 4-6 weeks so their properties can be drawn out. Then, the tincture is strained through a cheesecloth or coffee filter, and that’s that!
Olive leaf infusion
For the infusion, I put some fresh (washed and dried) olive leaves in my trusty spice grinder and whizzed them up into a powder.
Olive leaves contain oleuropein, a bitter compound, so I assumed this drink was going to be B-I-T-T-E-R*. However, tasting the flavour is all part of the process of getting to know a plant, and something I really enjoy. Some call it a ‘tea meditation’ but I find that a bit frilly. I prefer to think of it simply as ‘getting to know X plant’.
When I do this, I carve out some quiet time (kids in bed, hubby at work) and I sit alone with my cuppa and my notebook. First, I take a good look at that infusion, really noticing its colour. Then, I breathe in a good lungful of the scent and see what comes up. Finally, I take a sip and record the taste, but also the thoughts that it brings me.
I’ve had some pretty powerful experiences doing this, which I guess is why people refer to it as a ‘meditation’. Lemon verbena brought back memories of my grandma (who died when I was 15) so strongly I felt tears in my eyes. Wood betony took me to the river where I grew up. Olive leaf … well, that was a strange one. The smell reminded me of playing outside when I was a kid. I guess because the leaves were whizzed up from fresh, and they had that just-snapped-stem scent – like all the just-snapped stems that went into my backyard potions in the early 90s! The taste however, brought me quite a bizarre memory – the dispensing room at the pharmacy I used to work in when I was a teenager. I still haven’t worked out why.
This practice doesn’t always bring up memories. Sometimes it’s a feeling or an idea. It’s different for every plant, for every person, and every time. Why don’t you try it? Any simple infusion (i.e. containing only one type of plant) or decoction will do. Let me know in the comments if you did this, and what plant you chose!
*I didn’t actually find the infusion I made with the fresh leaves bitter for my palette (definitely not like mugwort!) But if you don’t fancy drinking olive leaf tea ‘straight’, you can always blend it with herbs of your choice. I’m still experimenting with my little jar of olive leaf. Cheers!