A History of Olive Oil through Myth

Olive oil is a product of the fruit of the olive tree. It is the juice of the olive fruit. Olives, a gracious, great and unique gift of nature to people, is known in Greece since around the third millennium BC. Most probably, the olive has traveled to Greece originating from the easternmost ancient countries, such as Syria and Palestine, as a result of commercial, cultural and social exchanges between countries of the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations. It has always been and remains a blessed tree, useful in its entirety.
Its fruit, the olives, can be eaten when unripe or ripe, green or black, prepared in various ways. They are rich in calories and natural antioxidants. Its leaves can be infused like tea and have a mild antipyretic effect. They are also used in cosmetics. They are also used as animal feed or as the raw material for humus or other type of soil enrichment.

The olive tree's wood -above the ground and roots- is used for making furniture, decorative objects, household and other utensils, as well as for heating.

Its fruity juice, the olive oil, is used as an edible fat in various forms and in different ways, but is also suitable for other uses related to the customs, the administration of daily needs and problems of the life and culture in general of people in countries that produce it or consume it.

Olive oil itself, as well as oils that are its by-products, has been used for lighting, well before the use of petroleum and electricity, in items like the oil lamp and the oil lantern.

The residues of olive oil, vegetable, liquid and solid, small amounts of which pass into the olive oil during the oil production process, can easily settle and be separated from olive oil, thanks to their different specific weight. Then, using a special process, they are used for the production of white soap, an excellent quality, unique cleaner with antiseptic properties. Other by-products of the olive oil are used for the production of superior quality green soap.

For the peoples of the Mediterranean, olive oil has been the sole fat used in their diet. Observation over time showed that the peoples of the Mediterranean were living healthier and longer than other peoples of our planet. Scientists have observed and analyzed all aspects of the diet of Mediterranean peoples and have proven that olive oil played a primary role in this. Thus the socio-scientific term "Mediterranean diet" was coined, which means in simple terms:

-diet based in the exclusive use of olive oil as a fat used in food and, at the same time, daily consumption of vegetables, fruit, dairy products and cereals, consumption two-three times a week of poultry and fish (white meat), consumption once-twice a week of carbohydrates and pulses (potatoes, pasta, beans, lentils, etc.) and consumption of red meat no more than once a month. And this dietary model is today considered by food scientists around the world the ideal one for promoting health and longevity.

Besides its use in cooking, in many ways, the olive oil was used and is still being used in Greece for other purposes as well. For instance, those Greeks who want to adhere to tradition give their babies a gentle body massage after the bath, exclusively with olive oil.
Olive oil is also used exclusively or in combination with various herbs as a medicine in many cases.

Several of these uses are a link to ancient Greek traditions and their continuation.

In ancient Greece, the olive tree and olive oil were always consciously precious. So, when the protection of Athens city was claimed by the god Poseidon holding his trident, a symbol of redundancy of water and ruling of the seas, and the goddess Athena holding an olive branch, a symbol purity and peace, the Athenians chose Athena as the goddess of their city, indicating, in a sense, the superiority of spirit over matter. As a matter of fact, the sacred olive tree she is said to have offered as a gift to the city of Athens is still alive.
In the Olympic games of ancient Greece, all the efforts for victory were rewarded solely by crowning of the winners with a wreath of wild olive branches.
Olive oil was used for massaging the athletes in gymnasiums.

Ancient Athenians had taken protective, economic, social and legal provisions to protect the olive tree and olive oil. For example, in ancient Athens the olive oil was the sole and exclusive prize for winners of the greatest events in the City, the Panathenaic festival, and its exportation from the country was permitted only to winners of the events.

Solon the Athenian, one of the seven sages of antiquity, in his all-inclusive law that remained in history as the "Seisachtheia", even set the distance between planted olive trees in ancient Athens at nine meters.

Hippocrates, the great physician, used olive oil predominantly in his science.

Homer describes olive oil as the "liquid gold".

The appreciation of the olive tree and olive oil from the mythology and ancient religious history of the area was also passed to the modern religious history. Thus, it is stated that God sent Noah a dove with an olive branch in its mouth to inform him of the end of the big flood.

Christians still appreciate olive oil in practice. In the religious naming ceremony (baptism) of the children, they use olive oil, the nature's precious liquid. Olive oil is also used in the religious mystic unction ceremony.

In the funeral rites of the Greek, olive oil also has a place. Greeks today use the three necessary and blessed liquids of life, olive oil, wine and water, to spray the remains of their loved ones, as a useful trip asset, along with a coin for Hermes, the carrier of souls, a remnant of antiquity.

In Greece, for many years in the past and today, the olive tree and its wood, the edible olive fruit and olive oil were (along with wheat, wine and "feta" cheese) the food staples each frugal household aimed to stock in order to make sure it will meet its daily essential needs.


A Few Words about the Olive Tree and Olive Oil

Olive trees grow abundantly between parallels 30 and 45 in the northern and southern hemisphere. The olive tree likes temperate climates. It grows both on rich and infertile soils, which it converts to fertile ones, with its perseverance to bear fruit. However, for its growth and fruit-bearing, certain climatic conditions must also be met (hot and cold, neither too hot nor too cold, not too dry nor too wet).

The olive tree is a member of the genus olea, which includes about 30 species, of which only the species olea europaea L is financially important, as it includes cultivated and wild olive trees, all of which produce olive oil. But each variety gives a different flavor, aroma and product quality.

It is believed that the best olive oils is produced by the Koroneiki variety, then the Local Olive Tree known as Kouchouroelia, with all other varieties coming short.

Ultimately, however, the quality of the olive oil, according to scientists, depends by 30% on the variety of the olive tree, by 40% on the cultivating efforts, the soil and the local and general climatic conditions and by 30% on the process of the oil mill, i.e. the facility that processes the olive tree fruit into olive oil.

So one easily understands that the issue of "quality olive oil" is a complex one and there are so many critical aspects of this quality.


For the composition and benefits of olive oil

In the diet of humans, the fat is absolutely necessary. The fat can be of animal origin (fats) or vegetable (oils). Οils have better quality than fats, with the exception of the Omega-3 fats.

The King of all fats, animal and vegetable, is olive oil and then all the other oils. Olive oil is the oily juice from the fruit of the olive tree, blessed olive tree which grows in temperate zones of our planet.

Olive oil is the most distinct and beneficial edible fatty substance on the planet. It contains about 150 natural ingredients -all of them beneficial- and, most importantly, harmonically combined, which can only affect positively our diet, as long as its consumption is moderate and to the extent recommended by nutritionists. These are mainly oleic acid, sterols, squalene, phenols, oleuropein, vitamin E, provitamin A and chlorophyll. Benefit, flavors and aromas, gifts of nature so generously given to earth, both in dry land and in plains.

A blessed product of a multiply blessed tree.

Some of these benefits, except the necessary calories it gives us, are the following:

• It works as an antioxidant in the duodenum, the stomach and the intestine.
• It acts favorably in the pancreas, liver and gall bladder.
• It does not permit the intestine to absorb the cholesterol intake, while also promoting its excretion. As a result, compared with other fats, olive oil reduces the chances of cardiovascular diseases. It is actually a heart-friendly fatty substance.
• It rejuvenates the cells.
• It helps the body's metabolism.
• It stimulates the hematopoietic system.
• It accelerates the healing of wounds.
• It protects the skin from sunburns rashes.



Types of Olive Oils

Depending on its acidity (and some other chemical characteristics) olive oil is classified as follows:

At the top of the classification is extra virgin olive oil (the "king" of olive oil), with acidity up to 0.8%.
Its most qualitative subcategory is extrissima virgin, with up to 0.3% acidity.
If it is PDO or PGI, it is considered better.
If it comes from an Integrated Management System, it is better.
If it is PDO or PGI and at the same time comes from an Integrated Management System, it is even better.
If it is organic, it is near perfect.
It is entitled to bear the wording "Olive oil of superior quality obtained directly from olives and only by mechanical means" in its label.

Lower in the classification, is Virgin olive oil, with acidity between 0.8% and 2%. It is entitled to bear the wording "Olive oil obtained directly from olives and only by mechanical means" in its label.

So far, the olive oils are pure edible ones, with no further processing.

Right below comes lampante (inferior, refined) olive oil, with an acidity of 2% or more. This is not directly edible, but does result in various commercial types of oil and other foodstuffs, after mixing with quantities of other of the aforementioned types.

Thus, we have olive oil, consisting of a mixture of chemically processed and virgin olive oils, the label of which must be marked as "oil comprising exclusively oils that have undergone refining and oils obtained directly from olives".

Finally, we obtain Pomace oil, from the residues of olive oil production, peels, flesh and crushed olive stones, resulting from a chemical processing of these residues. This is a product of the olive tree and a by-product of olive oil, but it is not olive oil. It must indicate on its label that it is "oil comprising exclusively oils obtained by treating the product obtained after the extraction of olive oil and oils obtained directly from olives".


A serious matter of price

A matter that does not go unnoticed is the much higher price of olive oil compared to any other edible fat, but this can be explained simply and reasonably.

The olive tree, a perennial rather than annual plant, occupies part of rural land and expectations of the farmer for many years.

The olive tree begins to bear fruit 3 to 5 years after it has been planted.

The yield of olive trees varies from year to year. In general, olive trees bear fruit every second year or they bear more fruit one year and less the next year.

While it is possible to cultivate other vegetable fatty substances in annual cultivations and to collect them using mechanical means, in large quantities. Instead, the olive tree is difficult to cultivate and this does not always happen in easily accessed places,while it is even harder to collect its fruit, at absolutely limited respective quantities.

There are a few lowland farms in large areas that have started recently intensive and very dense plantations, where all the cultivation works -even pruning and harvesting- are made exclusively using mechanical means. Any objective conclusions for this type of cultivation will be safely drawn in the future, as regards financial matters and production (quantitative and, most importantly, qualitative). However, in all other cases, the olive tree seems to have been given to man by nature, exclusively as a challenge.

While the other fatty substances are produced within a cycle of a few months, olive oil is produced within a cycle of a full calendar year, which sometimes becomes a full two (or even three) years.

The cost of cultivation is measured in terms of great effort, a lot of time and enough money to prepare, enrich the soil where the trees grow, fight weeds and vegetable, animal and microbial pests that harm olive trees, but especially the olive harvesting and necessary pruning. And, sometimes, the expectation for an upcoming production is terminated at the last minute, by nature's elements.

We believe that these reasons alone are more than enough for economists to justify the high price of olive oil compared to other vegetable oils. However, it is very reasonably priced compared to the real reasons why the olive oil prices are higher than those of other vegetable fatty substances.

Contrary to other vegetable fatty substances, olive oil is produced from the olive fruit using only mechanical (not chemical) methods. This is another reason why olive oil is a fatty substance of superior quality and nutritional value.

Olive oil contains a perfectly balanced combination, apart from all other beneficial antioxidant ingredients, of extremely large amounts of unsaturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids that, without any exaggeration, are not just a food for our body, but a true medicine.

As a matter of fact, the monounsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid is a huge part (between 70% and 83%) of the molecule of olive oil, making it more difficult to undergo thermal oxidation than other vegetable oils. And the lower the acidity of olive oil, the longer and harder it is for unsaturated fatty acids to break up and form saturated acids. For this reason, olive oil is the most appropriate fatty substance for raw consumption, as well as for all cooking methods, including frying.

Also, olive oil can in no way be compared with animal fats. Just because olive oil contains many unsaturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, while animal fats contain only saturated fats (with the exception of the praise-worthy Omega 3 fatty acids of fish).

So, if we are to recognize the really superior nutritional value of olive oil and, taking into account the amount of effort and expenses its production requires compared to other edible fats, it is clear that olive oil reaches our home at a really to reasonable price.


Conditions related to the quality of Olive Oil in general, regardless of the kind and category

• What is rather more important about olive oil is not the matter of its price, but its quality, which we as consumers –most of the times- do not have the specialized knowledge or the documented capability to check. Nevertheless, the scientists (or the laws, or the common sense) define what should or what is capable of being done for the quality of olive and the involved entities we should be careful that the olive oil is not only healthy and beneficial by nature, but also to remain this way after the human activities which intervene from production to consumption.

• A few examples of a better understanding of the issue

• Conventional olive oil growers should analyze from time to time the soil or the plants and also consult the specialists in order not to excessively use fertilizers and pesticides, which burden the environment and our dishes with the redundant harmful substances. For this reason, conventional olive oil which comes from IMS (integrated management system) farming, theoretically, is of better quality than the common conventional olive oil.

• The growers should carefully choose the exact time of the oil harvesting depending on the maturation of the olives. The most exceptional olive oil of limited percentagewise oil-content is extracted from green olives (green olive oil). Olives at the stage they start yellowing give a little more quantity and exceptional quality. The most, concerning the quantity and at the same time the best concerning the quality, olive oil, is extracted from yellow-iodine to iodine olives. Black olives give even more quantity of oil but that quality drops.

• The growers should diligently care the cleansing of the olives from materials like branches, also for the usage of healthy and appropriate materials regarding the transportation of olives from the field to the oil mill (e.g. no plastics bags) and for the direct oiling in order to collect olive oil without quality alterations from endogenous or exogenous fermentations or other contaminant factors.

• At the oil mill, olives should be washed with abundant clean drinkable water before the pressing. Olives, is recommended to avoid the needless excessive contact with air and temperatures should remain low during the whole production process, under 27 °C (even better if it is totally cold) to avoid alteration or destruction of the precious and sensitive nutrients of the olive oil. However, in low temperatures, percentagewise, less olive oil is extracted than in high temperatures, but the quality of cold extraction olive oil is superior.

• The olive oil formulators must chemically analyze the olive oils before the packing, in order to be sure that everything is compiled with the regulations and that the indications of the packaging correspond its content.

• As consumers, we should store our olive oil in dark and cold places, in well sealed bottles consisted of neutral and appropriate materials not only for consumables, but specifically for olive oil (sunlight and air literally destroy olive oil)

• According to a Greek saying, “old wine and fresh olive oil”. Laws, with scientific dictation, determine the expiration date of olive oil, which is indicated on the packaging.

• Conscious work is required from many together to produce olive oil of good quality, but it is worth the effort!