EVOO: HISTORY

 


From the most ancient times, olive oil (OO) has been revered for its qualities, the nourishing ones as well as the healing ones. This delicious LIQUID GOLD has accompanied human kind through history, being used as food, as cosmetics and utilities.

It is necessary to understand all the history lying behind the farming and manufacturing  of OO if we want to properly know it.

Production of OO could be tracked back to the 12th Century B.C. The oldest fossilized remains of an olive tree belong in the Paleolithic period and they were found in Northern Africa. Cave art paintings have also been found in the Sahara and some Bronze Age sites in the Iberian Peninsula and Crete; it is here where some rock paintings dating four thousand years old have been found. The paintings show the farming of olive trees.

Then choice of the fruit of the olive tree with an alimentary purpose could take place in the Near East. An oil was extracted, following very primitive procedures, from olives; this oil was later used as a balm, as food and as fuel for lamps. OO was used to light temples and other buildings.

In the Iron Age the farming of the olive tree reached Mesopotamia, growing and forming big forests in the so called ‘Fertile Crescent’. It was from the Phoenician expansion when its farming spread along the western part of the Mediterranean, in places such as Tunisia, Sicily and southern Italy.

 

•GREECE•

The Greeks gave Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, the credit for olive oil. Athena showed them the secrets of olive trees, its uses in beauty, medicine and other areas. Athena, otherwise identified in Rome as Minerva, won over Poseidon when carrying a branch of olive tree with her as the most useful gift to humankind.

Olive trees are mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the latter having some chapters in which some of the characters are anointed with olive oil. Moreover, it was an olive tree branch which turned Cyclops blind.

Olive trees and olive oil were present in lots of daily aspects of Ancient Greece’s life. The athletes taking part in the Olympic Games rubbed their bodies in olive oil, and the winners were crowned with olive branches and leaves.

One of the most widespread beliefs in Ancient Greece was that the sons of Gods were born under the shadow of an olive tree, and that is why a pregnant woman should sleep under one too.

There were lots of sculptures which included the olive tree or olive oil in one way or another, one of them being the statue of Zeus in Olympia. The God’s head wore a crown made with olive tree branches. Besides, next to the base of the statue there used to be a vase with olive oil in it to rub the figure, probably to prevent ivory from cracking.

In Greece, the olive tree was closely related to Palas Athena, who was a symbol of victory, knowledge and peace. There are some historical curiosities, such as the one that tells the habit of the philosopher Aristotle of rubbing his body in olive oil before lecturing his disciples. The olive tree was considered as a sacred tree, and as such it was especially taken care of. The cutting down of an olive tree could be punished with exile and expropriation of property.

Concerning cosmetics, the use of olive oil was widespread among noble women, who used oil scented in different ways depending on the parts of the body on which the oil was used. Another document can be found in the British Museum in London, where a vase dating from the fourth century B.C. is kept. On it, some farmers can be seen growing olive trees and gathering olives by using the technique of knocking down them with poles.

 

•EGYPT•

According to the ancient Egyptian mythology, it was the Goddess Isis who taught men the farming and growing of the olive tree and the extraction of the oil from the fruit. It was probably the Egyptians who started making soap from olive oil, as they really valued the cosmetic uses of this product.

There is proof that olive oil was used in Ancient Egypt; some olive oil vases are represented in one of Ramses The Third’s chambers. This pharaoh came from Crete, and he really appreciated the properties of OO. During his reign, he ordered that olive trees be planted in Heliopolis; the oil from these trees was used to light up the temple of Ra, the Sun God.

Another use of olive oil in Egypt was related to the process of mummy embalming; branches from the tree were also used as ornamentation.

Later on, when a great harbor in the estuary of the Nile River was built, the commerce and trade based on olive oil and other luxury items grew considerably.

 

•NEAR EAST•

Southern Caucasus, Syria, Palestine and the Iranian plains were some of the places were olive trees were first grown. In the Mediterranean Basin, the olive tree and olive oil were the object of legends and traditions, sometimes with a link to the supernatural. For example, olive oil was used to anoint the Kings of Israel, as it gave presumably them the power to rule. Another tradition was to pour olive oil on an altar to stimulate fertility.

There are lots of biblical references to olive trees an oil, just remember the Garden of Gethsemane, where some centenary olive trees still exist.

In Palestine, the oil also left a mark, as wise people were called ‘sons of oil’ because of the association between culture and the sacred light provided by olive oil.

•MODERN AGE•

The farming of olive trees spread to other warm areas, as new trading routes to the Atlantic and Northern Europe opened. Olive oil was still used for lightning and also preserving food.

The first olive tree arrived in America in 1520. It was one of the first crops that the Spanish conquerors took to the New World.

Some innovations in the growing and farming of olive trees were introduced in the beginning of the eighteenth century, being only the foretaste of what was to come as changes led by the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances.



•CONTEMPORARY AGE•

Some new technological advances in olive oil manufacturing, such as the hydraulic systems in pressing, happened in these times, led by the Industrial Revolution. At the end of the 19th century, olive oil fueled lamps started to replace gas lamps in public street lights.

Olive farming is introduced in China in 1955, and it has not stopped growing since.

•ROME•

It was in Sicily where olive trees were grown in big amounts. The Romans used the same farming processes used in Greece. It was in the fourth century B.C. when the first olive tree arrived to the Italian Peninsula, thus spreading the farming of it throughout the western Mediterranean Basin.

Romulus and
Remus’ legend, which tells that they had been nursed by the Capitoline Wolf, also tells that they both were born under an olive tree.

The expansion of the Roman Empire was key to opening new and safer routes of commerce of olive oil between Rome, the Near East, the North of Africa and finally, the Iberian Peninsula.

Amphorae were the container of choice to transport oil; the so-called DRESSEL ones were the most common. They kept oil at a temperature of 26 degrees centigrade. Their capacity depended on the type of amphora.

In the Roman thermal baths, a very important social meeting point for the upper classes, a place for health and beauty care, bodies used to be rubbed on with a mixture of olive oil and herbs, being these also used for massaging. Oil was also used as ointment in Rome, as in the rest of  Mediterranean cultures.

Olive oil was also very important used as a fuel for lightning lamps, and it was widely used in the Roman Empire.

Regarding food, olive oil played an important role in Classical Rome. In Apicio’s book ‘De Re Coquinaria’ , from the first century B.C., olives and recipes using olive oil are mentioned.

 

•CHRISTENDOM•

More than one hundred quotes concerning olive oil and olive trees can be found in the Bible. After the Flood, the dove that Noah released came back with an olive limb in its beak, which represented the forthcoming growth of life. Furthermore, in Christianity the olive tree is a symbol of Peace and reconciliation with God.


Some of the uses of olive oil in those times are also reflected in the Bible, for example as fuel for lamps in the Exodus, or the healing properties used by the Good Samaritan when curing the man. Getsemani, the Mount of Olives, is another example of the presence and importance of the trees in the New Testament.

On Palm Sunday, olive tree limbs are used due to an atavistic popular belief which says that olive trees provide protection from negative influences.

 

•ISLAM•

The olive tree is also pivotal in Islam; olive oils has always been used to light up homes and sacred places, such as mosques.

The Koran shows the olive tree as a tree full of sacred values. This culture has contributed a lot to olive oil, not only in farming methods and advances, but also in production processes and cooking. We must not forget that the growth and farming of olive trees in the Iberian Peninsula took place during Al Andalus, in the Middle Ages. It is not strange then that a lot of the terms used and related to olives come from Arabic.

Some of these terms are ‘Aceite’ (oil in Spanish), coming from ‘Al-zayt’ (natural juice coming from olives), or ‘Almazara’ (olive mill in Spanish), coming from ‘Al-ma`sara’ meaning mill. This invention was introduced in Spain by the Muslim people.

•MIDDLE AGE•

Even though the production of olive oil was not as remarkable as in the Roman Empire, it was used as food as well as fuel and in some liturgical uses. In medieval Spain, the extraction and use of olive oil was predominant in the Muslim kingdoms.


As olive oil was always related to the Jewish and Muslim cultures, which were considered heretic, the farming of olive trees was left apart in some areas of medieval Europe.

Nevertheless, the republic of Venice traded with olive oil during most of the Middle Ages, an activity that continued in the Modern Age and meant great income

 

•PRESENT TIMES•

The farming and growth of olive trees has spread through non-Mediterranean areas, in all the continents except for Antarctica. The consumption and use of olive oil has not stopped growing in the past hundred years.

Anyway, according to IOC (International Olive Council), seven countries concentrate around 90% of the world’s olive production: in the first place, Spain, followed by Italy and then Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco and Portugal. Production in countries as the US or Australia is continuously increasing.