Olives and Olive Oil

"The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold beads ,the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers - all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water."
'Prospero's Cell' by Lawrence Durrell.

The first known cultivation of the olive tree worldwide took place in Crete about 3500 BC in early Minoan times. At this time the olive tree was much wilder compared to the tree we know today.

After 2000 BC the cultivation of the olive tree in Crete became more organised and was the most important part of the island's economy. Crete began to export the olive oil not only to mainland Greece but also to North Africa and Asia Minor. Cultivation soon began in mainland Greece and both the olive tree and olive oil became synonymous with Greek cooking down through the centuries.

In the 6th century BC, Solon, the great Athenian legislator, drafted the first law for the protection of the olive tree prohibiting uncontrolled felling. The olive tree was a symbol in ancient Greece and olive oil was used not only for its valuable nutritional quality but also for medical purposes. Between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC ancient philosophers, physicians and historians undertook its botanical classification and referred to the curative properties of olive oil. This knowledge is being "rediscovered" today as modern scientists research and find news why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy.

The symbolic meaning of the olive tree is illustrated by the first Olympic Games, at Olympia in 776 BC, when an olive branch was awarded to the winners to symbolise a truce in any hostilities.

During the Classical period, when Athens reached the peak of its power, Greek olive oil was exported throughout the known world. When the Romans occupied Greece, olive oil production continued and the Romans were able to learn the secrets of its cultivation. During Byzantine times the production of olive oil in Greek territories was significant despite the vast size of the Empire which included almost half of the olive oil producing areas in the known world. When the Turks conquered Greece the production of olive oil was not affected. The product itself kept alive one of the traditions of the Greek nation and was even used for religious purposes. During this time the olive tree and its oil had a special position in the Christian Orthodox church; it was a symbol of love and peace, an essential part of several solemn rites, from the service of baptism to the oil lamps used in churches and the little shrine that is part of every Greek household. Undoubtedly, a great part of the total production belonged to the Turkish Government, but the rest remained in Greek hands as well as the "know how".

Today, Greece has become the world's most important exporter of quality olive oil. The love and high esteem of the Greek olive-grower for the olive tree is passed on from generation to generation and from family to family. With the birth of a child an olive tree is planted which will grow and develop along with the child. When the child starts school at the age of six, the olive tree is ready to produce its fruit. The tree grows up with the family, only it will have a much longer life and will still be around to be tended by the next generation, and the one after that. Each year, it yields its annual crop of olives in return for the labour and love expended on it.

Olives in Corfu are harvested from November until April, six to eight months after their spring blossoms appear. Olive trees require very warm average temperatures and grow successfully in Corfu, with its mild winters and long, hot summers. In many regions, olives are beaten from the tree with poles and caught in large nets. Other olive farmers now use machine harvesting, including trunk and branch shakers. However, in Corfu growers collect olives that fall naturally to the ground, or are helped on their way by wind and rain. Once collected, the olives are taken at once to an olive press, since, if they are not pressed immediately they begin to oxidise and ferment. Thousands of years ago, crushing was done by hand in spherical stone basins. Today, in a similar method, olives are crushed by mechanical stainless steel grindstones.

The oil is separated from the paste by means of centrifugation, which simply means spinning the paste round at high speed. This method produces extra virgin olive oil known as first cold pressed olive oil. No heat or chemicals have been applied. Five kilos of olives are required to produce one litre of oil. It is the cold press method that enables olive oil to maintain its flavour, colour and nutritional value. In fact, olive oil is the only oil that can be consumed as it is removed from the fruit. A gentle filtration process is used to remove sediment and produce extra Virgin olive oil with an acidity level of less than 1%. Any oil with acidity above this level receives an additional refining step to remove almost all traces of colour, aroma, taste and acidity, resulting in extra light tasting olive oil. In order to produce the grade of oil simply known as pure olive oil, extra virgin is added back to extra light to achieve the desired level of flavour and aroma. Like a fine wine each variety of olive oil is evaluated by tasting and measuring acidity before bottling. Also like wine, no two olive oils are alike. Each is a unique product of soil, climate, olive varieties and age, and processing methods. Oils can be fruity or flowery, nutty or spicy, delicate or mild, and can range from clear to pale green or golden to deep olive green in colour.

Did you know?

  • Olive oil is said to be an aphrodisiac!
  • Olive oil is the only oil that can be consumed as it is removed from the fruit.
  • Despite its size Greece is the worlds third largest exporter of olive oil - about one third of the total production is exported.
  • Greeks consume more olive oil per head than any other nation.
  • A Greek soap containing pure olive oil is said to help people suffering with eczema and psoriasis.
  • The olive oil market in Britain is growing at a rate of 25% per annum.
  • Only one tablespoon of olive oil has wiped out the cholesterol raising effects of two eggs.
  • 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil daily dramatically improves the blood profiles of heart attack patients.
  • 2/3 of a tablespoon of olive oil daily lowers blood pressure in men.
  • Greece produces about 300,000 tonnes of consistently high quality olive oil each year.
  • Olive oil consumption in Britain is 1.3 litres per person per year while in Greece it is 25 litres.
  • 70% of Greek olive oil production is Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  • Half of Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil production is exported to other olive oil producing countries.
  • Olive oil is an antidote for ammonia poisoning.
  • The olive tree has a revered place in Ancient Greek mythology - the goddess Athena was believed to have created the first tree during her battle with Poseidon, god of the sea, for the city of Attica. Up on the Acropolis, it was decided that the one who gave the city the finest gift should become its patron. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident to create a spring, and Athena planted an olive tree. While the water in Poseidon's spring was salty, and therefore of little value, Athena's olive tree provided the people with food, oil and wood. The city was renamed Athens.
  • Olive oils are graded and judged according to their level of acidity. Extra virgin olive oil is the product of cold pressing, a chemical-free process. This oil contains no more than 1% acid, and is considered the finest and fruitiest of all.
  • Some olive trees are known to live for thousands of years. The philosopher Plato founded his academy in an olive grove, and legend has it that an original tree from the grove was alive (though no longer producing olives) until the 1980s - making it more than 2,300 years old.
  • Olive oil was originally burned as the "eternal flame" of the Olympic torch, but over the years it was replaced by various substances that often proved to be inefficient and dangerous. After the 1956 Olympics, in which burning chunks of magnesium and aluminium scorched a runner in the final relay, the flame was replaced with much safer lightweight liquid fuels.
  • The health benefits of olive oil can be traced back to the creation. When Adam complained of being in pain, God is said to have sent down Gabriel with an olive tree, telling Adam to press the oil from the olives and drink it to cure any illness. Scientific research has since shown that he knew what he was talking about: olive oil is high in antioxidants and monounsaturated fats, which help to ward off cancer and heart disease.
  • There are over 700 different kinds of olives. The colour of the olive depends on its degree of ripeness: green olives, harvested early, have a high chlorophyll content, whereas olives harvested fully ripe at the end of the season are black.
  • Olive leaves have long been a symbol of peace, and are found on the UN emblem, which shows a map of the world encircled by a wreath of crossed olive branches. The US Great Seal also pictures an eagle carrying an olive branch. The 13 leaves in its right talon represent peace between the 13 original colonies of the nation.

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