Olive oil has long been considered one of the greatest natural assets of the ancient world (and sometimes worth its weight in gold). It has consistently offered humanity the gifts of health and wealth, and is as complex and delicious as wine. Since antiquity, olive branches have been a symbol of peace – perhaps because olive trees were an agricultural offering bestowed to the colonies after they were subjugated in battle. Wherever disseminated, olive trees were lauded for their myriad everyday uses, from the culinary to the corporal.

Fratelli Carli, Italian Olive Oil

Fratelli Carli, Italian Olive Oil

MYSTICAL ELIXIR FROM GOD HERSELF

According to legend, the olive tree was a gift from Athena, the wise warrior-deity who also recognized the power of peace. Gray-eyed Athena competed with Poseidon for the affections of the Greeks, and had offered the versatile olive in response to the sea god’s gift of a saltwater well. The olive proved the better gift, offering refuge from the harsh sun, crowning the heads of champions, anointing warriors and athletes with its splendid golden tone.

Athena Holding And Olive Branch

Athena Holding an Olive Branch, by Tavik František Šimon

To the Greeks, this was no mere tale to tell small children. When athletes rubbed it over their bodies before competition, it protected their skin from abrasions and the elements. According to Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, olive oil could heal numerous ailments, among them mental illness, and what Hippocrates charmingly referred to as “the diseases of women”. It offered light when burned and was used by priests to consecrate the dead. The trees were so sacred that those who cut one down were condemned to death.

Oil Vendor from Portugal

Oil Vendor from Portugal

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of man’s relationship with the pitted fruit, popular use most likely began in the southwest Mediterranean. Olive pits and wood fragments have been found in tombs throughout this area, some dating as far back as 5000 years.

Olive Branch

Olive Branch, by Franz Eugen Koehler

OLIVE OIL ARRIVES IN ITALY

Brought to Southern Italy by the Greeks, the Romans aped their predecessors in admiration for the oil. The Roman Empire’s prodigious growth and colonial expansion brought trees to Spain and other colonies in the Iberian Peninsula, and was already in use by the Berber of North Africa when the Romans arrived. Today, Italy and Spain remain the epicenter of olive oil production and appreciation.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, olive cultivation declined for a thousand years. Olive oil steadily regained its role in the Middle Ages, however, when the Roman Catholic Church used it in rituals and anointings, namely the Oil of the Catechumens and Oil of the Sick, and to consecrate priests. The name Christ comes from the Greek word Kristos — the anointed one.

Roman Gold Coin from 36 AD with Olive Branch

Roman Gold Coin from 36 A.D. with Pax Holding an Olive Branch

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers and missionaries introduced the olive to the New World, planting trees in Mexico, Argentina, and California, where it continues to grow today. Its real success in the New World, however, has been in Americans’ consumption of olive oil, which has increased dramatically in the past decades and made America the second largest market outside of Europe. Nearly all the olive oil consumed is imported from Europe, as America only produces 0.5% of world olive oil demands. The industry in America is gaining more attention, with California growing particularly delicious and complex varieties.

Cheap Oil: Olive Oil Extraction with Hexane. Thanks Shell!

Cheap Oil: Olive Oil Extraction with Hexane. Thanks Shell!

COPY FROM THE 1947 SHELL ADVERTISING:

“Like other sources of edible oils and fats, olives now play in “the Majors”. Every drop of olive oil is in demand. How many drops can an olive produce? That chemical symbol making the put-out represents a Hexane – which extracts more oil from the olive. When Shell scientists first got Hexane from petroleum, there was little reason to think that as an “extraction solvent” it might add directly to the food supply… But that day has arrived. Shell is principal supplier of Hexanes for olive oil extraction. (…)”

FURTHER READING:

Tom Mueller. “Slippery Business: The trade in adulterated olive oil”, The New Yorker, August 18, 2007.

Peter Garnsey. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

6 Comments

  1. Nins
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:14 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for the interesting article. Make sure your olive oil is "native/virgin extra" when you get it!!

  2. Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:09 PM | Permalink

    thanks for the message David.
    it was very educative on the fact that olive oil date back soo many years.
    I can across companies who manufacture processing lines for hexane extraction of edible oils from oil bearing seeds like olive , soyabean, canola, etc. . one of them i remember very well was Sundex Process Engineers from the city of mumbai . they are very well known in the edible oil technology. do you have any information of that.
    I am looking to process olive oil and was wondering if any one would help through the technologist for the same.
    regards,
    Rohan

  3. Posted March 2, 2010 at 7:37 AM | Permalink

    Hello Rohan,
    I'm not familiar with Sundex, but I imagine they use much more modern techniques than those used in classical times. The advantage to the old processes is that in the case of olive oil, the end product is much purer and flavorful if maintaining low heat during the extraction process. To this day there are traditional producers that still use millstones and the natural energy of moving water (from a river or stream) or farm animal.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 7:15 AM | Permalink

    i dont usually use olive oil for any of my food because i use corn oil instead which is very fattening but i dont care i like it! =D

  5. michelle Geddas
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Permalink

    I enjoyed the history that you provided. I would have liked to see the variations of extra virgin, virgin and other variations to use in my essay but thank you nonetheless.

  6. Mrss
    Posted January 19, 2015 at 7:14 AM | Permalink

    Unless it is "organic" ….non GMO you should be OK. But when you are eating for optimum health, disease prevention – olive oil is a better choice.

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