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
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
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
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
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
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.