|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
IL is obtained from seeds of various sorts and from
certain kinds of fruit, but the most highly esteemed
oil for the table, the very queen of oils, is that
which we get from the olive, the fruit of the
olive-tree. This precious tree, which the ancients
made the symbol of peace, fears the rude winters of the
North and thrives with us only in Provence and
Languedoe, especially in the departments bordering on
or near the Mediterranean. In size it is not a tall
tree, usually attaining about twice the height of a
man. Its head is rounded, not very dense in growth,
and furnishing but poor shade; its leaves are narrow,
leathery, of an ashen-green color, and do not fall in
winter. In summer its sparse branches are the favorite
resort of grasshoppers, which, reposing on the bark of
the tree in luxurious exposure to the intense heat of
the sun, indulge in unrestrained exhibition of their
 "The olive is green at first. The flesh covering its
hard stone, which is pointed at both ends, has the most
disagreeable taste you can imagine. An unripe grape is
sour, an immature pear harsh, a green apple tart; but
an olive not yet fully ripened far surpasses them all
in repulsive flavor. At the very first bite its
unbearable acridity burns the mouth so that you might
think you were chewing a red-hot coal. Certainly he
had need of a rare inspiration who first reposed
confidence in this unpleasant fruit and succeeded in
extracting its oil, which is mildness itself."
"I once took a notion," said Marie, "to taste of an
olive as it grew on the tree, and I can tell you I soon
had enough of it. Goodness, what a horrid fruit! How
can such sweet oil come from such bitter flesh?"
"Later when the cold weather of approaching winter
comes, in November and December, olives change from
green to reddish, and finally turn black. Then the
skin wrinkles and the flesh ripens, losing its tartness
and becoming rich in oil. That is the time for
harvesting the fruit. Women with the help of short
ladders gather it by hand and fill their upturned
aprons, blowing now and then on their fingers, benumbed
by the piercing cold of the December mornings. The
harvest is piled up at the foot of the olive-tree on a
cloth that has been spread there, and the picking is
resumed and interminable chattering and bursts of
laughter from among the branches.
"The olives are taken to the mill, where, after being
crushed under vertical millstones, they are
cold-pressed. By this first pressure is obtained fine
or pure oil, the most esteemed of all. Subjected to
 action of hot water and pressed a second time, olives
furnish a second grade of oil. Finally the residue,
mixed with the imperfect olives, such as windfalls and
those that are worm-eaten, yields what is known as
pyrene oil, which is too ill-flavored to be used in
cooking, but is useful for lighting and for
soap-making. The very last residue is made into
oil-cakes, and excellent fuel."
"But it isn't their oil alone that makes olives
valuable," said Marie; "they are good to eat after some
sort of treatment that I should like to know more
"Olives that are black, very ripe, and wrinkled, can at
a pinch be eaten just as they come from the tree, in
spite of a slight harshness of flavor that still clings
to them. To remove this they are slightly salted,
sprinkled with a few drops of oil, and kept in a pot,
where they are stirred from time to time. In a few
days they are ready to eat. Sometimes they are merely
soaked in salt water.
"But however they may be prepared, black olives are
never equal to green ones. The most ill-flavored
olives as they hang on the tree are the best when once
freed of their extremely disagreeable taste. Energetic
treatment is necessary to give them the desired
mildness of flavor. Recourse is had to potash, that
harsh substance I told you about in speaking of ashes
and the use of lye in washing. A quantity of very
clean ashes is taken from the fireplace and put into
water, to which is added a little lime, the effect of
which is to increase the strength of the potash.
Finally the clear liquid, charged with the soluble
 portion of the ashes, is poured over the green olives.
After some hours of contact with this corrosive fluid
they lose their acridity, and all that remains to be
done is to rid them of the lye that impregnates them.
This is accomplished by soaking them in pure water and
changing the water every day until it is colorless and
tasteless. By this repeated soaking nothing that the
ashes had contributed is left. Lastly the olives, now
a beautifully green color and an agreeable taste, are
salted down in brine, which insures their preservation
and corrects any undo sweetness of flavor."
"Then it is potash," said Claire, "that turns the
horrid-tasting fruit into the olives we see on the
table, and that I am so fond of."
"Yes, it is the potash obtained from ashes, potash
alone, that subdues and softens the harsh flavor of the
olive. Add this service to those that the same
substance renders us when it enters into the
composition of soap, glass, and washing fluid.
"In the case of the olive it is the flesh of the fruit
that furnishes the oil; but other forms of vegetation
valued for their oily constituent have this in their
seeds, their kernels. Leading examples are the walnut,
sesame, poppy, colza, a kind of turnip called rape, and
flax. Break a dry walnut, take a quarter of the meat,
and hold it close to the flame of a lamp.
 You will see it catch fire and burn with a beautiful
white flame which feeds on an oily juice that oozes out
as the heat increases. Thus we find there is oil in
walnuts. To extract it, we crack the nuts and take out
the meats, which we subject to strong pressure.
Freshly made nut-oil is pleasant to the taste and well
adapted to culinary purposes; therefore it is much in
demand wherever nuts abound. Unfortunately, it soon
turns rancid and it contracts with age a strong and
exceedingly repulsive taste.
FLOWERING BRANCH OF WALNUT TREE, WITH FRUIT
"Sesame is an herbaceous annual cultivated chiefly in
America and Egypt. Its seeds furnish a sweet oil
having nearly the same qualities as olive-oil.
Sesame-oil is not sold as such with us, but I suspect
dealers occasionally mix it with olive-oil, which is
much more expensive.
"Poppy-heads are full of very fine seeds which furnish
a fairly good oil known as poppy-oil."
"Poppy-heads will put a person to sleep," observed
Claire. "I remember once somebody made me drink some
poppy-tea to put me to sleep when I was ill. Poppy-oil
ought to make one sleep too."
 "It is perfectly true that poppy-heads make a tea that
induces a deep sleep. They owe this property to a
substance called opium, which is so powerful that if
you took a dose of it no bigger than a pea it would act
as a deadly poison and put you to sleep forever. But
this formidable substance is found only in the shell of
the fruit, in the envelop of the poppy-head, and not in
the seeds. Hence the oil extracted from these seeds
can be used in cooking without any danger.
"Colza and rape are two varieties of turnip cultivated
principally in the North. The pod-like fruit contains
two rows of fine seeds under two long strips or valves
that open from bottom to top at maturity. These seeds
give colza-oil and rapeseed-oil, which are used for
lighting and also in some of the industrial arts, but
are unsuitable for cooking on account of their
"Linseed-oil, finally, which is used chiefly in
painting, I have already told you about in one of our
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