Through the Mists of Time
Although a relatively new addition to the British store cupboard, people in the Mediterranean region have been using olive oil for thousands of years. When the oil was first used, or how people learned to extract it, is lost in the mists of time. But there is evidence that olive oil was first cultivated in Syria approximately 6,000 years ago.
The Bible contains numerous references to both the culinary and ceremonial use of olive oil. In the Book of Genesis, for example, a dove is despatched by Noah to search for dry land and returns with an olive branch. Interpreted as a sign of the end of God's anger, the olive branch became a symbol of peace and today it features in the logo of the United Nations.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses was taught by God how to make an anointing oil for ceremonial purposes by combining olive oil with spices. During consecration, holy anointing oil was poured over the head of kings and priests and the Roman Catholic Church continues its use in baptisms and for the last rites.
Inscribed earthenware tablets from Crete dating back to 2500 BC are the oldest known references to olive oil. Ancient philosophers, physicians and historians referred to the curative properties of extra virgin olive oil and Aristotle elevated olive cultivation to a science. But it was the Phoenicians, somewhere around 1200 BC, who taught the Greeks that the precious oil could also be used as a source of light.
It is believed that olive trees occurred naturally in Greece because the Greeks gave the fruit their own name - elaia. Had the fruit been introduced from elsewhere it is likely that the Greeks would have adopted the name given in the country of origin.
Anne Dolamore in her book The Essential Olive Oil Companion recounts a famous story from Greek mythology which is one version of the origin of the olive tree.
"There was a contest between the goddess, Pallas Athene, and Poseidon for control of the land of Attica. Zeus promised the land to the one who provided the most useful gift. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a magnificent horse sprung forth. Athene produced an olive tree and was judged victorious."
It is believed that by the 5th Century BC olive oil was produced in such abundance in Greece that it became a major export. So important was the tree to the Greeks and their economy that olive groves were considered to be sacred ground and only virgins and chaste men were allowed to cultivate them. Supposedly the use of Virgin Olive Oil comes from this.
If you would like to learn more about the history of olives, we recommend "The Essential Olive Oil Companion" and "Olio di Oliva" which is packed with good recipes.