Olive Oil is as Old as the World and is Still Very Healthy

When we think about Mediterranean cuisine, the flavour of olive oil immediately comes to mind. The division between those who favour butter as opposed to olive oil mainly exists for cultural reasons. Basically, in those places where olives don’t grow people use another fat in the kitchen. The history of olive oil shows that it has been with us longer than one might expect.

“The Mediterranean ends where the olive gives up growing.”
George Duhamel

Olive oil is as “old as the world”. Which god granted it to us?

Olive oil has been with us since the beginning of civilisation. Aleph (“ox”), beta (“house”). gamma (“camel”) and zai (“olive oil”) are the symbols for the pictographs representing the first letters of the oldest alphabets. All of the Mediterranean peoples attributed the discovery of the olive tree to their gods.


Wikimedia Commons/Lemone

Any Egyptian would claim that it was Isis who gave us olive oil. Olive jars appear on bas-reliefs in the tombs of rulers of the 4th and 5th Dynasties. Excavations in Crete have revealed huge amphorae in which thousands of litres of oil could have been stored.

Any Greek would argue for this honour to be bestowed on Pallas Athena. According to Athens’ foundation myth, Zeus organised one of his contests. The god who presented the creation most useful to humankind would become master or mistress of Attica. Poseidon caused a swift steed to emerge from the sea, which would “pull chariots and win battles”, while Athena sowed an olive tree, which would “illuminate the night, soothe wounds and provide food of an exquisite flavour”. Athena won, because her tree was more pacifist than the “war-horse”.

The goddess got control of the region. And a city was named in her honour – Athens. Apparently, trees seeded from the original still grow today on the Acropolis. Most of the descendants of gods were of course born under olive trees.

The Romans claimed that Hercules propagated olive cultivation when he was performing his twelve labours. Tacitus mentions that olive oil was consumed in vast amounts and plantations were often created to force the restless nomads to live more settled lives. Every citizen who sowed a patch of land with olives was exempted from military service. Olive oil became a “liquid gold”.

In the Bible, olive oil appears (someone counted it once) 140 times! 

Prayer in the Garden of Olives (San Marco)

Prayer in the Garden of Olives (San Marco), Wikimedia Commons


So I won’t list all the places it occurs. It’s worth mentioning that the dove released by Noah to check if the flood was subsiding a little returned with an olive branch. This signified that God’s anger was also subsiding. This is the point at which the symbol of a dove with an olive branch was born as a symbol of peace.

Moses was commanded by Yahweh to anoint the temple appurtenances and Aaron’s head with olive oil. It was also used to anoint the priest kings of Israel, granting them power and strength. In Hebrew, the word “messiah” denotes someone who has been anointed (with holy oil). We know that the first Christians were not in fact baptized with water, but by being anointed with oil. Jesus spent his final night in the garden of Gethsemane (Gat-Šmânim), which literally means the “oil press” in Hebrew. Many nations introduced the ritual of anointing their kings with holy oils. The Prophet Mohammed advised his followers to anoint their bodies with it and often anointed his own head with olive oil.

What’s special about it?

Dzweko-oliwneWe are not exactly sure when and where the first olive tree grew. It is clear that they are characteristic of the Mediterranean region. Fossils discovered by palaeobotanists suggest that wild olives were already growing 50 thousand years ago, but we began cultivating and squeezing oil from them about 5000 years ago. From the Third Millennium BC, olive presses were already widely familiar.

Olive saplings were first cultivated in Palestine and Syria, later spreading to Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Spain. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, recommended olive oil for ulcers, muscle pain and cholera. Pedanius Dioscorides (the Greek doctor and botanist) used olive oil as a base for almost all his ointments.

These days we know that olive oil is a monounsaturated fat. It helps to reduce the level of low density lipoprotein (LDL), popularly known as “bad” cholesterol, which causes such ailments as venous congestion. Studies of edible fats have also proved that olive oil raises the level of high density lipoprotein (HDL), which removes cholesterol from the veins and transports it to the liver, where it’s excreted.

The inhabitants of Mediterranean countries who consume large quantities of olive oil rarely fall victim to heart disease.

It is also used in cosmetics, because olives are extremely rich in fatty acids. This leads to skin aging more slowly. It antifungal and detoxifying properties are also well known.

In the Middle East, it is still the most popular cosmetic. In Indian medicine, it is used in massage. Savon de Marseille, a soap from France based on olive oil has its many admirers.

In Poland, olive oil is increasingly being employed in cooking as a substitute for traditional butter or rapeseed oil. There is also a growth of interest in natural cosmetics and olive oil is returning to favour.

What kind of olives do you like?

oliwkiMany methods of preserving olives are known. Recipes for these have been handed down in Mediterranean countries from generation to generation just like those for pickling gherkins have in Poland.

It should be noted that unripe olives are green and very bitter. As they mature, they become oily and their colour changes. They are preserved so that they can be kept for longer, but also to improve their flavour. Olives are most often named after the place from which they come, e.g. the olive de Nice, or the manner in which they have been preserved. Stuffed olives were already beginning to be produced around the 18th century in Aix-en-Provence, with their stones being replaced by capers.

The most popular methods of preservation are:

  • water-cured (for many weeks, during which time the water is repeatedly changed)
  • brine-cured (salty water draws out the bitterness from the olives, from 1 to 6 months)
  • salt-cured (the olives are rubbed with salt, which removes their moistness and bitterness, and then soaked in olive oil)
  • lye-cured (preservative E524) – this is the method employed by olive producers. It is quick and involves soaking the raw olives in sodium hydroxide solution, which draws out the bitterness from the olives)

Picholine – French, crunchy, tart taste, green, preserved in brine

Olive de NiceFrench, very small, ripened on the tree, preserved in a salty solution

NyonsFrench, small, black olives, salt-cured, aged in brine, later soaked in olive oil

Gaeta olives – Italian, small, wrinkled, preserved in salt or brine, mild taste, often seasoned with herbs

Olive of Seville – Spanish, green, very large, often stuffed with pimiento peppers or anchovies

Manzanillo – Spanish, green, soaked in brine and stuffed with pimiento peppers

Kalamata olives – Greek, large, succulent, violet, preserved in red wine vinegar

Nafplion olives – Greek, dark green, cracked with stones, preserved in brine

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