Olive oil: from the beginnings of history to our tables

Olive oil is the liquid obtained from olives, the fruit of the olive tree.

The origin of the olive tree is unclear. Some experts point to Ancient Egypt, but archaeological findings from 2014, specifically a piece of ceramics with traces from olive oil found in Israel, suggest that olives were already being used to produce “liquid gold” in 6000 B.C..

It is thought that the production and consumption of olive oil have spread to the city of Haifa, later to the area now known as Syria, followed by the whole Middle East and Greece.

Olive oil is obtained from olives, the fruit of the olive tree.

Timeless and global popularity

As the Greek Empire grew, with colonies being established along the Mediterranean Sea, olive oil production was gradually introduced in areas such as Italy and Iberian Peninsula. The Roman Empire further expanded its consumption and production, which eventually became established in virtually the entire Mediterranean area.

The oldest existing records of olive trees in Portugal date back to the Visigoths, between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D.

The introduction of olive trees in the Americas happened much later, in the 16th century, when the olive tree began to be cultivated in areas like Chile, Argentina and the California region (in the USA), as they have a climate quite similar to that of the Mediterranean.

The white dove with an olive branch is a symbol of peace.

The role of the olive oil and the olive tree in religion

Olive oil and the olive tree also play an important role in the religion and beliefs of many peoples. In Greek mythology, the olive tree symbolises peace. Christians also have the olive branch as a symbol of piety and, in the Bible, the dove sent by Noah brought an olive branch to announce divine mercy – even today, the white dove with an olive branch in its beak is one of the most recognisable symbols of peace.

Olive oil is also used as sacred oil in religious rituals.

World heritage

Many centuries have passed until olive oil was given due recognition. Perhaps one of the milestones in this journey was the study on the Mediterranean diet, carried out in the 1950s by the American physiologist Ancel Keys, identifying it as having a central role in this food pattern.

This research ultimately gave great visibility to the Mediterranean diet, which was later classified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

There has been, since 2017, an annual literary prize for authors that write poems, tales or even scientific literature about extra-virgin olive oil. It is called International Literary Prize Ranieri Filo della Torre and is awarded by Pandolea, an Italian association which brings together women with a strong link to the world of olive oil: entrepreneurs, agronomists, researchers, journalists, physiologists, nutritionists and cosmetics specialists.

Culinary (and not so culinary) uses of olive oil

If you live anywhere around the Mediterranean, you most certainly have tried olive oil. You may not use it as seasoning or cooking fat, but it is present in so many cooked food – even when you don’t notice this ingredient.

There are always new and different ways to enjoy it. Why not dip a slice of rustic bread in a little extra-virgin olive oil? If you never did, we promise you’ll stay a fan.

If you have enjoyed olive oil – and especially if you grew up with it being a guest of honour in your cruet – you know its culinary uses are wide.

Codfish goes hand in hand with olive oil.

Olive oil is used to prepare seasoning, sauces, soups, stews, stir-fries, deep-frying, and many others, be it sweet, savoury, deserts or even ice cream. If you don’t believe us, just try for yourself: there’s olive oil and honey cornbread, olive oil cake, and even sautéed fruit cocktail.

Fish, especially cod (the Portuguese “bacalhau”), go hand in hand with olive oil, but also the so widely appreciated octopus. Both in Portugal and in Northern Spain, octopus has a special connection with this elixir. But do be bold in the kitchen and try to incorporate olive oil in bread-making – add a bit of feta cheese and oregano for a totally Mediterranean explosion of flavour.

Besides cooking, olive oil is used for many other purposes. Some use it as a skin moisturiser, hair repairer or lip balm. The bravest ones apply it to the skin or hair. It can be also found in a variety of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, soaps, detergents, lotions or even as fuel in vintage oil lamps.

Is olive oil really good for you?

Although highly caloric, and for this reason it should be consumed in moderation, olive oil is a healthy fat.

Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats like oleic acid, which helps in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels in the blood.

Olive oil is a preferred fat for seasoning and cooking, namely for frying. Since its smoke point – the temperature at which fats start to smoke and, thus, degrade – is higher than other fats, food fried in olive oil is less oily and absorbs less fat than when fried in other oils.

To reduce your salt intake, you can opt for herb-flavoured olive oil – that you can even do yourself.

Research about its benefits is still ongoing, but we’re quite certain that olive oil will surely benefit your taste buds.