Greek olive oil, or “Liquid Gold,” as Homer called it, has been part of Greece’s history since antiquity. It is an irreplaceable nutritional component of the Greek diet.
Ancient Greeks used olive oil as part of their efforts to enjoy a healthy life and to promote longevity, as well as a cosmetic for the skin and hair. Today, Greek olive oil is considered by most to be of the highest quality worldwide.
The history of humanity’s use of the olive dates back to ancient history. In his work “Origin des plantes cultivees,” botanist Augustin Pyrame de Candole writes that our cultivation of the olive tree dates back to 4000 B.C. and that it originates from the coasts of Asia Minor.
De Candole based this conclusion on the existence of self-sown wild olive tree vegetation, ancient texts by various writers, and findings from archaeological excavations.
Based on excavation discoveries in Knossos in 1951, archaeologist Panagiotis Anagnostopoulos claimed the island of Crete to be the olive’s place of origin. This theory is supported by the fact that the name given to the olive tree is Greek and was thus preserved in all languages.
Today, throughout the world, there are approximately 800 million olive trees of which approximately 95% are cultivated in the Mediterranean basin where the best soil and climatic conditions for olive cultivation can be found.
The olive is widely grown throughout Greece. Its cultivation, which is greater than any other type of fructiferous tree, occupies approximately 15 percent of cultivated agricultural land and 75 percent of arboraceous cultivations in the country.
Olive oil in Ancient Greece
Olive oil in Ancient Greece was not only a basic food but also a symbol of good health and strength and an actual medicine. It was also a source of magic, inspiring great awe for its powers.
Athletes and warriors would massage the oil onto their bodies because they believed it would provide them strength and good luck. Further, the heads of nobles were anointed with it.
Later, in Christian times, drops of olive oil would be scattered on the bones of dead saints and martyrs, as it was a symbol of benediction and purification.
According to archaeological research, the cultivation of olive trees on Greek soil first began in Crete, 3,500 years ago in the Early Minoan era.
Much like today, ancient Greeks had three categories of olive oil, but “Omotrives,” or “omfakinon,” considered to be of the best quality, was produced from unripe olives.
The “second meal” was good quality oil but always considered second best while “bulk oil,” made from overripe or crushed olives, was of the lowest quality. The latter was also used for burning oil lamps.
Since ancient Greeks were lovers of beauty and all physical virtues in general, oil was a key element in physical care. Coating the body with oil protected one from both the cold and the dryness caused by the sun.
After bathing, the body and hair were coated with aromatic oil, as this was a key ingredient in many perfumes.
Olive oil was used in antiquity for its healing properties, as well. The Hippocratic Code indicates there were more than 60 medicinal uses for olive oil.
It was suitable for the treatment of both skin and gynecological diseases and was used as a healing ointment or antiseptic in wounds, burns, and ear problems. Ancient Greeks also used olive oil as an emetic for inducing vomiting.
Furthermore, the Ancient Greeks used olive oil as a lubricant in mechanisms and components, while an oil-based ointment was used to preserve ivory, leather, and metal.
Greek olive oil today
Through the ages, olive oil has become synonymous with Greece. The picture of an olive tree or olive grove spells Greece as much as an Aegean Sea sunset or a chapel on top of a mountain village.
Olive oil is an integral part of almost all popular Greek dishes from Greek salad to moussaka and from tzatziki to spanakopita.
“If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.” Odysseas Elytis
Today, Greek olive oil is regarded as the best in the world because extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) comprises at least 80 percent of olive oil production, while in Crete it reaches close to 90 percent.
Rich and aromatic, Greek olive oil is produced only from green olives. Its color, aroma and flavor vary and depend on several factors.
These factors include: the olive variety, location and type of soil where the olive tree is cultivated, as well as the environmental and climatic conditions in which the tree is cultivated and grown.
The maturity of the olive itself at the time of harvesting is also important, as are the season and the way in which the olive is harvested. The time delay between the harvesting of the olives up to the production of the olive oil is likewise of great significance.
The manner in which olive oil is produced, the storage techniques, and the manner in which the oil is packaged and transported to the oil presses also must be taken into account.
The various types of Greek olive oil include:
Extra virgin olive oil: This is the best quality olive oil with exceptional color, aroma, flavor, and acidity that does not exceed 1%.
Virgin olive oil: This is differentiated from extra virgin olive oil not only because of the degree of acidity, which does not exceed 2%, but also because of its flavor.
Substandard virgin olive oil: This is an olive oil of medium quality and flavor with an acidity that exceeds 2%.
Mixed olive oil from refined and virgin olive oils: With a pleasant flavor and aroma, it has a yellow-greenish color and its acidity does not exceed 1%.
Refined olive oil: This olive oil is nearly tasteless with acidity of up to 0.3%.
Olive pomace oil: With a soft, mild taste, this oil is made from the mixture of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oil.
Green olive oil: Green olive oil is the first oil of the year which is collected and delivered to us after much hard work and effort; it is produced in limited quantities.
Extra virgin olive oil
“Greek extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) have very low acidity and peroxides, which make them of premium quality,” says Nicholas Basoukos, managing partner of Greek Heritage Foods, a New York-based company which imports Greek olive oil and other foods.
The high quality can be recognized mainly from the fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency of the oil, as well as its aromas, which embody the freshness and health of the olives.
All these extraordinary characteristics are the result of proper planting, maintenance, and meticulous care throughout all stages of olive production and harvesting.
Basoukos believes that approximately 70 percent of all labelled EVOO’s sold in United States supermarkets are either adulterated or defective.
An olive oil is considered adulterated when it is mixed with oils of inferior quality, such as canola, sunflower, soy, and corn, he explains.
“Defective is when the olive oil has very bad organoleptic characteristics (which include aroma and taste).”
This can happen for a variety of reasons, Basoukos says, including defective harvesting and production processes, a lack of winnowing out of the bad olives, poor quality in the milling process, or the use of high-temperature water.
Olives can ferment when they are exposed to the sun for long periods of time or if milling machinery is not properly cleaned every time it is used for a different batch.
Basoukos says that over the last several years, there has been a huge shift regarding the understanding of EVOO.
The chemical analysis standards which have been established from the International Olive Oil Council “are quite broad” whereas the organoleptic analysis can detect defects which are not normally identified through standard chemical analysis.
“This whole organoleptic concept is relatively new for most people, so the majority of the producers, distributors and consumers are not familiar enough to distinguish the difference,” Basoukos says.
Olive oil industry is changing
Greek EVOOs could certainly improve further to increase competitiveness in international markets where new, very small-scale producing countries such as South Africa, Chile, Brazil, and the U.S.A. (specifically the state of California) are striving to gain a share.
Basoukos, whose Greek olive oil recently placed first at the DOMINA olive oil contest in Italy and was entered in the New York Olive Oil Competition, says new countries will prove to be competitive “because they started doing everything right from the beginning.”
However, Basoukos believes that with a great deal of education and investment, Greece can be a leader in premium quality EVOO production.
Greece has its own experts, however, such as Eleftheria Germanaki, an agronomist and official judge in the most prestigious international olive oil contests.
“Chemical analysis is very important, but through its smell and taste, someone can distinguish the quality of an οlive oil,” she states.
She goes on to state that: “The organoleptic process is a tool that every consumer can learn to use. Not everyone may have access to a chemical laboratory, but everyone has the senses of smell and taste.”
Germanaki, who has been working on the qualitative attributes of olive oil for over thirty years, says that “the Greek land is truly blessed” and “the luminous sun and crystal clear sea, the mountains and the wind all play vital roles that bring out all the high quality organoleptic characteristics of our οlive oils.”