The History of Olive Oil

The History of Olive Oil

If you’ve ever enjoyed a flavorful salad dressing, lightly seasoned meat with olive oil or perhaps olive oil mixed with spices for bread dipping, you might have thought briefly of its storied past. Even in stories from the Roman Empire and other ancient civilizations, olive oil was a favorite food item. Today, olive oil history is as rich as its resonant flavor. It comes in elegant varieties that enchant the senses, and families everywhere from Italy to upstate New York grow fresh olives to make the best olive oils for customers.

So how has olive oil been a food staple for so many cultures over millennia? Where does olive oil come from in the world, and where did it originate? Dig into the roots of this oil that people have been using worldwide for all these years. Read on to get an inside look at olive oil’s storied history.

Table of Contents

What Is Olive Oil?

What Is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is the product of pressed and crushed olives, squeezing out the rich juices inside them. Records of use go back thousands of years, and diverse cultures from Palestine to Syria to the Mediterranean have grown olive groves for millennia. As an essential food source for many cultures and medicinal and religious significance historically, it has offered much value to people worldwide in many different eras.

Today, regular olive oil is a popular ingredient for many different recipes and cooking styles. Extra-virgin olive oil is a favorite for cooking and also for finishing preparations. If you want a lighter flavor for baking, light-tasting olive oil is a popular choice to give the dish a subtle, more neutral taste.

Making Olive Oil

To become the product used around the world, olive oil undergoes these essential processes.

  1. Olive tree cultivation: Most commonly grown in the Mediterranean, olive oil begins with an olive tree. Growers cultivate these trees in groves to allow their fruit to ripen. 
  2. Olive harvesting: When the freshly matured olives are ripe, growers harvest them for processing into oil. 
  3. Olive processing: Producers crush the oil into a paste, decant it and then process it through centrifugation to separate the pure oil. Depending on the type of oil, the olives may be cold-pressed or refined through a heating process.
  4. Olive storage: Once producers have collected the fresh oil, they will store it in stainless steel tanks without any oxygen to keep it fresh and robust in flavor. Finally, the oil will go into dark bottles to help maintain its freshness.

Where Did Olive Oil Originate?

Olive oil came into widespread use sometime in the classical era of the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians. Stories from ancient Israel, Crete and southern Anatolia demonstrate that the oil’s use was prevalent early on in this period.

Based on some archeological findings, some historians believe olive trees may have originated in Turkistan and Iran. However, other scholars think the practice of olive tree cultivation may have emerged in multiple cultures at once, as historical records indicate that olive oil’s use appeared across numerous locations around the same time. By the time of Greek expansion and colonization, the Mediterranean region, North Africa and Egypt were already engaging in olive tree cultivation and oil production.

Who Invented Olive Oil?

The inventor of olive oil is unknown — and if olive tree cultivation developed in multiple locations around the same time, numerous people likely share the responsibility. Greek mythology credited the minor god Aristaeus for bringing olive oil to the world, and olives and olive oil were symbols of immortality to the people of ancient Greece. Meanwhile, the use of olive oil is also evident in several cultures outside Greece. Archeological findings indicate that the Minoans commonly used olive oil for medicine, soap, ointments and lighting. 

Ultimately, scholarship has not pinpointed the original inventor of olive oil. Still, it is clear that its use was widespread throughout Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Turkey, and also appeared early on in Greek culture.

Types of Olive Oil

Types of Olive Oil

Today, olive oil is available in several different varieties to meet many purposes. Critical differences between oil types include the process of extracting the oils from the olive fruit and whether producers combine them with other oil types. Which type to use will depend on what you’re cooking or any other uses you might have for it.

Olive Pomace Oil 

Pomace oil comes from the olive residue that remains after pressing the fruit. It has the lowest overall olive oil quality. The remaining byproduct can yield a small amount of olive oil. To help improve its quality and flavor, producers mix olive pomace oil with virgin oil. It is the least expensive option and works best only for high-heat cooking applications.

Pure Olive Oil

Known for its enriched flavor, this oil blends virgin oil with a refined type of oil. Generally, if the extracted and refined oil does not meet expected quality standards, manufacturers will mix it with more refined oil, either virgin or extra virgin oil. This combination creates higher vitamin E levels and improves the flavor.

Refined Olive Oil

Refined olive oil not mixed with any virgin oil comes from ripe black olives. It has lower quality, but it is still excellent for cooking. While including the same amount of calories and fat as other types of olive oil, this type offers several health benefits, including helping prevent colon cancer.

Virgin Olive Oil

As an unrefined type of olive oil, virgin oil comes from cold-pressing the olives, leading to a more natural flavor and aroma than refined types. It has a milder taste but a slightly higher acidity than other types of olive oil. It is ideal for low-heat cooking and is temperature-resistant.

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Considered the highest-quality olive oil, extra virgin oil undergoes cold-pressing to extract its natural content without any alterations from high temperatures. Because of its extraction method, it maintains much of its rich, natural aroma and flavor and has a low acidity content.

Extra-virgin olive oil has several outstanding health properties and can provide essential fats to the body. It lends itself well to various cooking and practical uses.

Is Olive Oil Better Than Other Oils?

Olive oil provides some superior health benefits. In contrast to other vegetable oils, its juices come directly from the fruit rather than from a seed. It’s integral to the Mediterranean diet, widely recognized as one of the healthiest ways to eat. 

Olive oil is pure fat, but it is a highly healthy fat because it does not contain carbohydrates or protein. It primarily consists of monosaturated fats and a beneficial fatty acid called oleic acid. Many other types of oils, such as canola oil and avocado oil, have more unhealthy fats than olive oils. Integrating olive oil’s healthy fat into your cooking can help your body better absorb critical vitamins such as K, E, D and A, which are all fat-soluble.

Also included in olive oil are antioxidants, which can help improve overall health and protect the body from illness.

According to research, the oleic acid found in olive oil can offer a wide range of health benefits, including helping reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol and even decrease some cancer risks.

The History of Olive Oil

From its intriguing origin in ancient times to its widespread use today, olive oil has appeared worldwide in many different cultures. Its popularity has persisted throughout the years as empires fell, new kingdoms rose and new ages came to pass.

Early Appearances

Whether it originated in the Middle East, Greece, Anatolia or perhaps several places around the same period, olive oil was famous for religious ceremonies, foods and ointments in ancient times. Holy writings, legends and historical records all mention oil as part of their daily lives and an essential aspect of their cultures.

Mediterranean economies widely cultivated and traded olives and olive oil, and people like the Minoans of Crete became prosperous through their trade.

Greek Uses

To the ancient Greeks, olive trees and olive oil represented health, peace, victory and wisdom. As a part of their religious practices and diets, olive trees and wreaths were common decorative motifs on jewelry and other artwork. Olive harvesting was vital to the local economies, and the Greeks used astronomy and agricultural study to advance their olive cultivation techniques. They also developed new olive presses to efficiently create high-quality oils. 

Some evidence suggests olive oil use in ancient Greece was primarily for the rich, who kept it available for everything from cleaning to cooking to lighting their homes. Many Greek doctors also used olive oil to treat conditions such as wounds, infections and burns.

As the Greeks expanded and began founding colonies in southern France, Spain and Sicily around 800 BCE, they brought the art of olive oil cultivation with them. Olive harvesting became a standard practice all around the Mediterranean and as far as the Black Sea. Trade routes across ancient cultures were a significant part of the economy, as Greeks traded with Egyptians, Phoenicians, Cretians and others.

Roman Era

Following the example of the Greeks, the Romans continued to cultivate olive trees and expand olive harvesting and trade practices. They spread olive cultivation across the vast Roman Empire, establishing producers in Spain, Italy and other regions.

The Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire fell and the Barbarians invaded the land, olive production decreased significantly. However, in the Eastern Roman Empire —‌ what is now Turkey —‌ the practice continued even amid regional instability. Over time, religious communities took up olive oil cultivation and continued the tradition in Western Europe.

Early Modern Era

In the 16th century, Europeans began to adventure across the ocean to the New World, and they brought olive oil cultivation with them. In the decades to come, olive harvesting became common in Argentina, Mexico, Peru and California.

When the Franciscans arrived in California and moved north to establish missions, they planted olive groves along the way. Southern California’s olive trees began to flourish, even when the buildings started to fall to ruins in the 19th century. Many of these groves, which are today over 100 years old, still exist in the region.

Modern Times

Today, olive tree cultivation and olive oil production continue to be a vital part of many economies and cultures. Many of today’s olive trees flourish along the Mediterranean —‌ specifically, France and Italy —‌ and olive tree cultivation is also prevalent in Greece. Across multiple continents, people grow and press olives, yielding the rich oil beloved worldwide.

How Olive Oil Became Popular

So how did olive oil become so popular around the world? Olive oil and its uses are rich in mythology and lore, and they always have been. In ancient cultures, they symbolized desirable values. Ancient scholars and doctors like Hippocrates explored olive oil’s medicinal value and encouraged its consumption. Because so many people groups used the oil, it was also a backbone of trade throughout the Mediterranean and as far as Russia, making it even more vital to nations in this era.

Today, olive oil reemerged in popularity, particularly after the 1980s, when doctors began to publish findings of the health properties the oil offers. Medical reports have demonstrated that consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease and decrease cholesterol. Around the same time, the Tuscan diet also became more popular, leading more people to experiment with the rich flavors olive oil offers.

Olive oil has left its mark on history, and you can see its legacy in the beautiful groves everywhere from California to the Greek isles. You can explore these historical sites for yourself and see how olive oil shaped everyday life over centuries of cultures.

Explore the Legacy of Cultures on a Windstar Cruise

Explore the Legacy of Cultures on a Windstar Cruise

Over the years, olive oil has offered diverse benefits for people of many different eras and cultures. From religious ceremonies and mythology in the past to health benefits for people today, olive oil continues to provide a delightful, robust flavor for many different applications. You’ve likely experienced for yourself how its complex aroma and taste can enhance a meal, just as they have for many people across the ages.

If you want to explore the history of olive oil for yourself, there is so much to see and do! Experience its legacy and witness the beautiful olive groves cultivated in ancient times when you travel on one of Windstar’s cruises. With our culturally rich destinations and world-class staff, we’ll make every day of your travels with us a vivid adventure. Of course, along the way, you’ll get the chance to sample the finest olive oils throughout the Mediterranean.

Browse your cruise options today for a thrilling journey to see ancient history, rich cultural influences and modern-day living converge in exciting locations from the Mediterranean to Greece to North Africa. Explore the Greek isles and more with us!

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