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The History Of Olive Oil

Ripe Olives
Greece Olives
Image by RobW_

The History Of Olive Oil


The olive tree is a crop native to Asia Minor that spread to Iran, Syria, Palestine and the rest of the Mediterranean basin around 6,000 years ago. The olive tree and its fruits have ancient roots connected with the history of man. Much more than mere food to the people of the Mediterranean; it has been used as an external ointment, a medicinal product and also in religious ceremonies.

The olive tree is among the oldest cultivated trees in the world, being grown long before the written language was invented. It was the symbol of abundance, glory and peace and the olive tree branches were given to crown the victorious in friendly games and bloody war. Olive crowns and olive branches, known as emblems of benediction and purification, were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures – some were even found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Phoenician civilisation spread the olive to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe and it has been found in Egyptian times since 2000 BC. As the Romans extended their domain, they brought the olive with them and over the past several hundred years the olive has spread to North and South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. There are over 800 million olive trees in the world today with more being planted every day. Much of the commercial cultivation of olive oil is still centred in the Mediterranean region in such countries as Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Turkey.


Olive tree cultivation and olive oil production has been with humankind since time immemorial, according to evidence that provide the artefacts and archaeological remains of our most ancient civilisations. Olive tree cultivation was empowered and considered highly beneficial in Greece. In Athens, the olive tree was so sacred it became the symbol of the city.

Olives are harvested in the autumn and winter and green olives are picked at the end of September to about the middle of November. It is the green olive that produces the oil and as with wine, the flavour, colour and consistency vary due to different olive types, location and weather. In order to obtain the finest quality olive oil, the fruit must be harvested at its full ripeness and pressed within 72 hours. The best harvesting method is hand picking but this is labour intensive and therefore, reflected in the price.


In Greece, olives were said to have been created by the goddess Athena who brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift and it was considered that only ‘virgins and chaste men could tend the groves’. Athena planted the original olive tree on a rocky hill, which we now know today as the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree.

The belief that olive oil conferred strength and youth was widespread. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome it was infused with flowers and with grasses to produce both medicine and cosmetics. Both scriptural and classical writings refer to both the oil and the tree as symbols of goodness, purity, peace and happiness.

Sally Nightingale writes on behalf of GetOily which stocks a range of quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

Vines and Olives
Greece Olives
Image by RobW_

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