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Home arrow The World of Oil arrow The Olive Story


by HORST SCHÄFER - SCHUCHARDT, Journalist for Der Feinschmecker, author of documentaries on olive oil for Munich's Radio-Television, author for the World Olive Encyclopaedia published by the International Olive Oil Council


The Mediterranean is the heart of our civilization and historic homeland of olea europea var. Sativa: the olive. Its mild climate, with hot dry summers that are sometimes humid, and rainy winters, make the Mediterranean the ideal place for olive growing. Sunlight, water and shallow land are the perfect natural elements for growing these trees. For thousands of years, the olive has been considered a symbol of abundance, glory and peace. In ancient times, its smaller branches were used to crown the winners of peaceful games or violent wars; the oil from its fruits anointed great men and played an important role in the culinary, cosmetic and therapeutic fields. Thanks to large and intensive olive farming, civilizations like the Cretans and the Philistines prospered. For this reason, it is not unusual to consider the olive the first amongst all trees, as asserted by Giunio Moderato Columella: "Olea prima omnium arborum est" (De Rustica, V.8.1).

Mediterranean olive farming reaches as far North as Provence, in France; it spans the Italian peninsula, Greece and the Chalcidic peninsula, all the way South beyond the oases of Tunisia, lower Egypt and the Fajjum territory, all the way to Mecca and Saudi Arabia. The Iberian Peninsula and the Canary islands represent the Western limits, while Iran's plains mark its easternmost boundaries. Today, olive trees (of which there are over 700 varieties) are found even in a few American states, South Africa, Australia, Japan and China.

In ancient times, olives were mostly grown in the Western Mediterranean basin or in the "Fertile Crescent" area and then in Greece and its islands, South-Western Turkey, Syria and Palestine. Today, the world record is in the Western Mediterranean area: Spain's olive oil production has in fact recently exceeded one million tons, Italy five hundred thousand and Greece three hundred thousand.

Prehistoric finds show that olive trees have existed in Italy since the tertiary period, approximately one million years ago. Fossilised leaves were in fact found in Mogardino, near Bologna. Olive pits have been found near settlements from different eras: in Menton on the French Riviera (Palaeolithic, 35,000 - 8,000 B.C.), in El Garcel in Spain (Neolithic, 8,000 - 2,700 B.C.), in Torre a Mare and Fasano, South of Bari (5,000 B.C.) and, finally, by Lake Garda (Bronze Age, 1,500 - 1,000 B.C.).

Olive growing started its development in Palestine, Syria and Crete, where the most ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean originated. Small presses in the olive museum of Sheman Industries in Israel are evidence of oil production in the 5th century B.C. Large cisterns and huge goatskin bottles show that Crete's olive oil production goes back 7,000 years. In fact, the wealth of this pearl of Western Mediterranean was based on olive oil production and trade with Egypt.

A fresco inside the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses III is evidence of the use of oil in the second millennium B.C. It depicts jars used to contain precious ointments destined for the kingdom of the dead. Depictions of small olive branches and leaves were discovered inside the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. According to the worship of the dead, only those whose hair, face and feet were smeared with oil could approach the idols, which were also purified with ointments during sacred ceremonies. Furthermore, a document given as a gift by Ramses III to the Sun God Ra stated how the Pharaoh planted olive trees to extract the oil used in lighting the lamps inside the god's palace.

Even the Bible (Genesis 8, 10-11) contains an ancient reference to olives, which dates back to 1000 B.C.: after the great flood, Noah sent out a dove on recognisance and it returned carrying in its beak an olive leaf, a symbol of peace. Also, in the Old Testament, all promises, admonitions, precepts and prophecies mention olive trees, which are essential and vital for the chosen people.

Homer's Odyssey frequently mentions the olive tree, its fruits and its oil; even Ulysses and Penelope's bridal chamber was carved out of a great olive tree.

In the Parthenon, a sculpture by Phidias depicts Athena and Poseidon, and between them an olive tree. In fact, according to Greek mythology, the goddess Athena planted the first olive tree on the Acropolis as a symbol of victory over Poseidon, and she has since then been considered the patroness of olive trees. In her honour, from that time on, a festival known as Panathenaic was held in Athens: young maidens with crowns of olive branches would carry a new peplos to Athena's statue, which was made out of olive wood and stood on the Acropolis. The winners were rewarded with jars filled with olive oil. In Olympia, instead, the winners of the Olympic Games in Zeus's honour were crowned with olive branches.

Both the Greeks and the Romans used olive oil to prepare athletes in the gymnasiums, for massages and body treatments, and at the baths, as well as an ointment for men and women after adding herbs and flowers to make it aromatic. A few drops of oil were used to treat bleeding wounds, relieve itchiness, alleviate bowel or stomach ailments and as a mouthwash. Today, numerous studies confirm that extra virgin olive oil helps prevent coronary diseases, circulatory problems, atherosclerosis and premature memory loss.

Olive oil also had other uses: soap was made with it. Oil has been saponified since ancient times, and almost every city had a soap factory next to the large public wash houses, where women used to go to do the laundry; temples, palaces and houses had lamps or chandeliers made of clay, bronze or silver, which were fuelled with oil and were used until the invention of the gas lamp in the 19th century. The most famous lamp-holder is certainly the Jewish Menorah, the seven branched candelabrum made by Moses, but noteworthy is also the votive lamp for the goddess Athena, in the Parthenon, part of a ceremony which was later to be incorporated by the Catholic Church.

It is also worth mentioning the Christian worship ceremonies that involve olive oil: when Jesus died, he was wrapped in a linen shroud after anointing his body with myrrh and olive oil based aloe, according to ancient Jewish and Egyptian traditions. Instead, the practice of carrying vases containing ointments to tombs is of Greco-Roman origin. Jesus of Nazareth himself was anointed by the Lord and his names, Christ and Messiah, in fact mean "consecrated by unction". In Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, consecrating the oils has great sacramental importance. In fact, Holy Thursday is dedicated to blessing the oils, which are kept in precious cruets.

The Romans were the ones who improved oil production methods, thanks to scholars, agronomists and scientists like Aristotle, Caton, Pliny, Solon and Vitruvius. Archaeological finds have revealed they had specific techniques and knowledge about harvesting, pressing, milling and storing the oils. There were two procedures for obtaining the oil: milling or pressing the olives.

The most primitive crushing method was the Canalis et Solis, with a large base, its perimeter had round holes where the olives - often pitted - were squashed with blocks of wood or pressed with stones. Instead, the Trapetum was made from a large stone basin or bowl, around which spun two semi-spherical millstones. Finally, there was the Mola Olearia, which was made from a fixed circular base, with a round millstone moved by a lever at its centre, spinning around its axis.

After crushing the olives, the oily paste was placed in baskets, which were then placed under a press. The oil ran through a groove into a container and was then poured into larger vessels where it was allowed to settle in order to separate the vegetable water. The introduction of large olive presses and crushers marked a new era in the history of oil production, and a few models could still be used to this day, although they have been surpassed by our modern continuous-cycle machinery where olives are crushed with hammers or discs and a centrifugal system separates the oil from vegetable water and pomace.

Thus, although we have new techniques, the approach has remained unchanged since ancient times.