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Olive Oil: A History Noble, Healthy and Slippery
by Marjorie Dorfman

Olive oil is many things to many people. It was well known in the ancient world and dates back some twenty million years, although actual cultivation of the olives probably did not occur until the fifth century BC. Read all about this noble unguent and its endless source of health, power, fascination and wonder.

Olive Oil and The Ancient World

The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin and it is known that Neolithic people as early as the 8th millennium BC collected wild olives. Before 2000 BC Egyptians imported olive oil from Crete, Syria and Canaan, and olive oil was considered a symbol of importance and wealth. One tomb over 4,000 years old on the island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea yielded jugs containing the remains of olive oil. Sinuhe, the Egyptian exile who lived in northern Canaan about 1960 BC, provides written record of abundant olive trees.

There are two main theories concerning the very first cultivation of olives, and many experts agree that it occurred before 4,000 BC on the island of Crete. The earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date back to early Minoan times (3500 BC). Other historians assert that olives were turned into oil by 4500 BC by Canaanites in present-day Israel.

It is known for sure that over 5,000 years ago olive oil was extracted from olives in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the centuries that followed, olive presses could be found in abundance from the Atlantic shore of North Africa to Persia, and from the Po Valley to the settlements along the Nile. Many ancient presses still exist in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and some dating to the Roman period are still in use today.

Homer called olive oil "liquid gold" and the athletes of his day ritually rubbed it all over their bodies. Olive oil is mentioned in the Bible in the 23rd Psalm, (Thou anointeth my head with oil) and has been an almost mystical force down through history. Ancient saints and martyrs were buried with holes in their tombs specifically so that drops of olive oil seeped into their bones, preparing them for some grand and mysterious afterlife.

In the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea particularly, olive oil has been much more than just food. Medicinal and magical, the olive tree is a symbol of abundance, glory and peace. Its branches crowned the victorious in both games and battle, and the oil of this fruit has anointed the noblest of heads throughout history. Even the tomb of King Tutankhamen contained olive crowns and branches; symbols proffered to a glorified king in ritual splendor.

Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin during the evolution of the Roman republic and empire. Olive oil was a staple of Hellenic and Latin cuisine. According to legend, the city of Athens was so named because the offering of the goddess, Athena was an olive tree. It won over the offering of Poseidon, which was a spring of salt water gushing out of a cliff.

In the ancient city-state of Sparta, athletes rubbed themselves with olive oil while exercising in the gymnasia. This ritual, so often depicted in ancient murals, eroticized and highlighted the beauty of the male body. From the seventh century BC, the decorative use of olive oil quickly spread to all of the Hellenic city-states.

In the eight century BC as the Greek colonies expanded, olive culture reached Southern Italy and Northern Africa and then spread into Southern France. The Romans filled the Mediterranean basin with olive trees and according to historian, Pliny, Italy had "the best oil in the Mediterranean at reasonable prices."

Olive trees were almost sacred in the land of the Hebrews where King David employed guards to watch over the olive groves and warehouses and ensure the safety of their most precious olive oil. In ancient Hellenic society, olive trees dominated the Greek countryside, and anyone who cut them down risked death or exile. Olive oil was the hottest export in both the Roman and Greek cultures and special ships transported the oil to the various trading posts along the Mediterranean.

Ancient Beliefs Concerning Olive Oil

It was a common belief in the ancient world that olive oil conferred strength and youth. In the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, in order to produce both medicine and cosmetics the oil was often infused with flowers and grasses. In an excavation at Mycenae, a list was found, which enumerated the aromatics added to olive oil in the preparation of ointments. These included: fennel, sesame, celery, watercress, mint, sage, rose, and juniper among others.

Olive oil served a myriad of purposes in ancient civilization. Used in religious rituals, medicines, as fuel for oil lamps, soap making and skin application. (This is in addition to food, of course.) Even the derivation of the word, oil, denotes its significance. It may derive from the Greek elaion (olive tree), but more are inclined to think that it comes from the Semitic/Phoenician use of the word, el'yon, which means ‘superior.’ This indicates an implied comparison to other vegetable or animal fats available at the time.

Olive oil symbolized healing and strength and consecration. It was God’s way of setting a person or place apart for special work. This may or may not be related to its use as a medicinal agent and for cleansing athletes by slathering them in olive oil and then scraping them off.

Religious Significance of Olive Oil

Ancient Jews, Muslims and Christians all held olive oil in great esteem. In Jewish observance, olive oil is the only fuel allowed for use in the nine-branched Menorah. Obtained by using only the first drop from a squeezed olive, it was then consecrated and stored in special containers for use only in the Temple. Although candles are permitted, oil containers are preferred, because they imitate the original Menorah. Another use of oil in Jewish religion is for anointing the kings of the Kingdom of Israel, a ritual dating back to the days of King David.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the world, olive oil was used to bless and strengthen those preparing for baptism. For rituals such as Baptism and Confirmation, it was mixed with balsam or some other perfuming agent and consecrated by bishops. Eastern Orthodox Christians still use ‘vigil lamps,’ which consist of a votive glass containing a half-inch of water, the rest of which is filled with olive oil. The glass’s metal holder either hangs from a bracket on the wall or sits on a table. A cork float with a lit wick floats on the oil. To douse the flame, the float is carefully pressed down into the oil.

In Islam, olive oil is mentioned in the holy verse of the Qur’an (Koran). It states: "God is the light of heavens and earth. An example of His light is like a lantern inside which there is a torch, the torch is in a glass bulb, the glass bulb is like a bright planet lit by a blessed olive tree, neither Eastern nor Western, its oil almost glows, even without fire touching it, light upon light."

The Koran further makes reference to olives as a sacred plant in the quote: "By the fig and the olive, and the Mount of Sinai, and this secure city."

Muhammad himself was reported to have stated that olive oil cures some 70 diseases. He recommended the use of olive oil in the following ways: "Consume olive oil and anoint it upon your bodies since it is of the blessed tree."

How Olive Oil is Made

The most traditional way of making olive oil is by simply grinding olives. Special care is taken to insure that the olives are perfectly ripened, as over-ripeness produces a rancid oil. First the olives are ground into paste using large millstones. The olive paste generally stays under the stones for 30–40 minutes. The oil collected during this part of the process is called virgin oil. After grinding, the olive paste is spread on fiber disks, which are stacked on top of each other, then placed into the press. Pressure is then applied onto the disk to further separate the oil from the paste. This second step produces a lower grade of oil.

Modern Consumption of Olive Oil

Most of the global production of olive oil comes from southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Of the more than 750 million olive trees that are cultivated worldwide, 95 percent are located in the Mediterranean region. Greece devotes 60% of its cultivated land to olive growing. It is the world’s top producer of black olives and has more varieties of olives than any other country. Greece exports mainly to European Union (EU) countries, mostly Italy. Olives are grown for oil in mainland Greece, with Peloponnesus being the source of 65% of Greek production, as well as in Crete, the Aegean Islands and Ionian Islands.

Different Varieties and Grades of Olive Oil

Among the many different olive varieties or cultivars are:
In Italy, Frantoio, Leccino Pendolino, and Moraiolo
In Spain, Picual, Alberquina, Hojiblanca, and Manzanillo de Jaén
In Greece, Koroneiki
In France, Picholine
In California, Mission
In Portugal, Galega
In Croatia, Oblica and Leccino
The flavors and stability (shelf life) of these oil types varies s considerably.

In North America, the best-known olive oils are Italian and Spanish, and top-quality, extra-virgin oils from Italy, Spain and Greece are sold at high prices, often in "prestige" packaging. A large part of US olive oil imports come from the EU, especially Spain.

The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:

Virgin means the oil was produced without any chemical treatment. It has an acidity of less than 2 percent.
Extra Virgin olive oil comes from cold pressing of the olives. It contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and has a superior taste.
Refined signifies that the oil is of a lower quality than virgin oil and technically that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes and acid content.
Pure olive oil refers to oils that are usually a blend of refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil.
Pomace refers to olive oil that is extracted from the pomace by using chemical solvents, mostly hexane. Although it is fit for consumption, it is rarely sold at retail, and is often used for certain kinds of cooking in restaurants.
Lampante oil comes from olive oil’s long-standing use in oil-burning lamps. It is mostly used in the industrial market.

The wording on olive oil labels is chosen very carefully. Some include:
"100% pure olive oil" is usually the lowest quality available in a retail store. "Virgin" refers to higher grades.
"Made from refined olive oils" means chemicals control the taste and acidity.
"Light olive oil" refers to refined olive oil with less flavor.
"From hand-picked olives" implies that the oil is of better quality, since producers harvesting olives by mechanical methods are inclined to leave olives to over-ripen in order to increase yield.
"First cold press" refers to the first oil that came from the first press of the olives. Cold is important because if heat is used in the process, the chemistry of the olive oil is detrimentally altered. To further confuse the issue, it should be stated that extra virgin oil is cold-pressed, but not necessarily the first oils.

Buyers should note that the label on any given bottle of olive oil might indicate that the oil was bottled or packed in one country, but that does not necessarily mean that the oil was produced there. Sometimes, the country of origin may be marked elsewhere on the label. It is also possible that the bottle may contain a mixture of oils from more than one country.

Health Aspects of Olive Oil

Due to the fact that olive oil is considerably rich in mono-unsaturated fats, most notably oleic acid, many studies suggest that when part of a consistent diet, it is linked with a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease. Since 2004, American producers of olive oil have been allowed to place the following health claim on bottles of olive oil:

"Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about two tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the mono-unsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day."

A large body of clinical data suggests that consumption of olive oil can provide many heart-healthy benefits, including favorable effects on cholesterol regulation and LDL cholesterol oxidation. Beneficial effects have been noted in both animals and humans. Some clinical evidence suggests that it is olive oil’s phenolic content rather than its fatty acid profile that is responsible for some of its cardio-protective elements. Studies have shown that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the "good" cholesterol) levels. No other naturally produced oil has as large an amount of mono-unsaturated fat, which is mainly oleic acid, as olive oil.

Natural health remedies support the topical application of olive oil as well. The preferred grade for moisturizing the skin is Extra Virgin Olive Oil, especially when used in the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM). This utilizes a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, castor oil and a select blend of essential oils. Olive oil is also used by some to reduce earwax buildup. Jeanne Calment, who holds the record for the longest confirmed lifespan, reportedly attributed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance to olive oil, which she said she poured on all her food and rubbed into her skin.

Culinary use

In the words of Marcella Hazan, author of the cookbook, Marcella’s Cucina:

"The taste of a dish for which you need olive oil will be as good or as ordinary as the oil you use. A sublime one can lift even modest ingredients to eminent heights of flavor; dreary oil will pull the best ingredients down to its own level. Partial clues to the quality of the olive oil you are buying are supplied by the label and the price, but ultimately, the only way to determine which one, among those available, is right for you is to taste and compare."

In all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, olive oil is the main cooking oil. Extra virgin olive oil is mostly used for cold food such as salad dressings because its strong flavor counteracts the cold’s declining taste in food. Oils are fine for boiling and baking, but for frying foods they should not be used. Frying should be kept at a minimum anyway, but if you must do it, consider using fats that stand up better to high temperatures like clarified butter (not considered "heart healthy" but less damaging than corrupted oils) or refined olive oil. Another alternative is to follow the old Chinese culinary tradition of splashing some water into the wok before the oil, which keeps the temperature down.

An important issue is the freshness of the olive oil because in time, oils deteriorate and become stale. Olive oil will keep up to two years when cool, sealed and shielded against light. As with wines, tastes differ from oil to oil and they are influenced by the soil that the olive trees grow on, and by the moment at which the olives are harvested and ground. As they say, "the soil makes the oil."


Olive oil has had a formidable history and has been a part of human culture and tradition for centuries. It continues to have a well-respected presence in the modern world due to its many beneficial contributions to civilization and the culinary arts. So the next time you drizzle a little olive oil into a saucepan, stop for a moment and give it a little respect. I’d say salute it, but that might be going a bit too far. (Besides, you might drop the bottle.)

Here’s to olive oil; its past, present and future.

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Copyright 2009