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About Olive Oil

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The History of Olive Oil

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Types of Olive Oil

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Health Benefits of Olive Oil

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Nutrition

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Cooking with Olive Oil


The History of Olive Oil

Olive Oil History

Homer called it "liquid gold." In ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it all over their body. Its mystical glow illuminated history. Drops of it seeped into the bones of dead saints and martyrs through holes in their tombs. Olive oil has been more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean: it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder and the fountain of great wealth and power. The olive tree, symbol of abundance, glory and peace, gave its leafy branches to crown the victorious in friendly games and bloody war, and the oil of its fruit has anointed the noblest of heads throughout history. Olive crowns and olive branches, emblems of benediction and purification, were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures: some were even found in Tutankhamen's tomb.

Origins of Olive Oils

Since ancient times, the olive tree has commanded respect and inspired endless rituals and traditions. Its history, which seems to go back as far as the earth itself, is bound up with that of the Mediterranean. Native to Asia Minor, it spread to the Mediterranean region over 6,000 years ago. The Egyptians, who consumed large quantities of olive oil during the time of the Pharaohs, brought it from Crete and used it during funeral and purification rites. But it was the Phoenicians who, in the sixteenth century B.C., began to plant olive trees throughout all of Greece and eventually the Mediterranean basin, where olive orchards and mills multiplied along with the Romans.

Originally, olives were planted and cultivated mainly for the use of their oil as a light source. Over 70% of ancient oil production was for light and fuel, 20% was for medicinal purposes and less than 10% was for food. Over time as cultivation spread and production methods became more efficient, olive oil was used more and more for culinary purposes. Olive oil was the green gold of gods, kings, and queens before it became a daily staple for most Mediterranean populations. It was a magical substance, a source of riches and power, a symbol of longevity, fertility, and wisdom.

For thousands of years, man has cultivated and manipulated the varieties of olives in order to produce the most rewarding of olive oils. This constant manipulation leaves unclear which varieties came from which other varieties. Some dominant varieties still exist and are predominant to certain areas. For example, the Arbequina, Picudo, and Hojiblanca varieties are dominant on Spanish territories. In France, the Picholine,Acolana, Tanche, and Verdale remain most prevalent. And in Italy the Leccino, Frantoio, Bianca, Cerasuola, and Moraiolo varieties dominate. Yet over the past several hundred years, olives varieties have spread to South America, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as other territories worldwide. Many of these olive varieties and their origins remain unclear. Some research is now being done using gene mapping techniques to figure out the olive family tree.

Cultivating the Sacred

Olive culture has ancient roots. Fossilized remains of the olive tree's ancestor were found near Livorno, in Italy, dating from twenty million years ago, although actual cultivation probably did not occur in that area until the fifth century B.C. Olives were first cultivated in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, in the region known as the "fertile crescent," and moved westwards over the millennia.

Beginning in 5000 B.C. And until 1400 B.C., olive cultivation spread from Crete to Syria, Palestine, and Israel; commercial networking and application of new knowledge then brought it to Southern Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt. Until 1500 B.C., Greece—particularly Mycenae—was the area most heavily cultivated. with the expansion of the Greek colonies, olive culture reached Southern Italy and Northern Africa in the eighth century B.C., then spread into Southern France. Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin under Roman rule. According to the historian Pliny, Italy had "excellent olive oil at reasonable prices" by the first century A.C, "the best in the Mediterranean," he maintained.

In the land of the Hebrews, King Solomon and King David placed great importance on the cultivation of olive trees; King David even had guards watching over the olive groves and warehouses, ensuring the safety of the trees and their precious oil.

Olive trees dominated the rocky Greek countryside and became pillars of Hellenic society; they were so sacred that those who cut one down were condemned to death or exile. In ancient Greece and Rome, olive oil was the hottest commodity; advanced ships were built for the sole purpose of transporting it from Greece to trading posts around the Mediterranean.

The belief that olive oil conferred strength and youth was widespread. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, it was infused with flowers and with grasses to produce both medicine and cosmetics; a list was excavated in Mycenae enumerating the aromatics (fennel, sesame, celery, watercress, mint, sage, rose, and juniper among others) added to olive oil in the preparation of ointments.

Olive trees have an almost titanic resistance, a vital force which renders them nearly immortal. Despite harsh winters and burning summers, despite truncations, they continue to grow, proud and strong reaching towards the sky, bearing fruit that nourishes and heals inspires and amazes. Temperate climactic conditions, characterized by warm dry summers and rainy winters, favor plentiful harvests; stone, drought, silence, and solitude are the ideal habitat for the majestic olive tree. Italy and Spain are now the most prolific producers of olive oil, although Greece is still very active. There are about thirty varieties of olives growing in Italy today, and each yields a particular oil with its own unique characteristics.

Olive Oil Properties

Sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude: these are the five ingredients that, according to Italian folk traditions, create the ideal habitat for the olive tree.

We treasure extra-virgin olive oil for its nutritional and salutary virtues. La Cucina Italiana reports that extra-virgin olive oil is the most digestible of the edible fats: it helps to assimilate vitamins A, D and K; it contains so-called essential acids that cannot be produced by our own bodies; it slows down the aging process; and it helps bile, liver and intestinal functions. It is also valued for its culinary virtues and organoleptic properties as well: flavor (sapore), bouquet (aroma), and color (colore)

Climate, soil, variety of tree (cultivar) and time of harvest account for the different organoleptic properties of different oils. Certain extra-virgin olive oils are blends of varieties of olives; others are made from one cultivar.

The European Community gives the following parameters:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil with perfect taste is oil of the highest quality; it has a minimum organoleptic rating of 6.5 out of 10, low acidity (1% or less), and is untreated.

  • Olive oil has a minimum organoleptic rating of 5.5, a maximum of 2% acidity and is untreated.

  • The production of all other olive oils involves treatments.

Extra-virgin olive oil is produced in all regions of Italy, except Piedmont and Val D'Aosta. The leading producers are Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, and Apulia. Tuscany produces such a great assortment of extra virgin oils that many do not resemble each other. In Umbria, it is so widely produced that it would be hard to imagine the landscape without the abundance of olive trees. Apulia is home to an impressive one-third of Italy's olive trees.

The price of extra-virgin olive oil varies greatly. Two factors are influential: where the olives are grown and which harvesting methods are implemented. Certain locations yield more bountiful harvests; consequently their oil is sold for less. Olive trees planted near the sea can produce up to 20 times more fruit than those planted inland, in hilly areas like Tuscany. It is in these land-locked areas that the olive trees' habitat is pushed to the extreme; if the conditions were just a little more severe, the trees would not survive. Extra-virgin oils produced from these trees have higher organoleptic scores.
 


References :

http://www.globalgourmet.com/food/egg/egg0397/oohistory.html

http://www.oliviersandco.com/FO/Content/About/OliveOil/
 

 

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