Greek olive oil is synonymous with Greek tradition, as well as its healthy diet and its rich history. The “Liquid Gold” of the country, as Homer called it, is an irreplaceable nutritional component for every Greek.
Ancient Greeks consumed olive oil for a healthy, long life—both as food, or as an essential treatment for the skin and hair.
Today, olives and olive oil are staples in a Greek home, where they are used in salads or as an essential ingredient in much of Greek cuisine.
Of course, now Greek olive oil is exported to and consumed in all parts of the world, and many connoisseurs consider it the best there is.
History of olive oil
Olive trees and the precious fruit were cultivated as far back as 4000 BC, according to botanist Augustin Pyrame de Candole and his book Origin des Plantes Cultivees.
The botanist traces the origin of the olive tree on the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean, basing his conclusion on the existence of self-sown wild olive tree vegetation, ancient texts, and archaeological excavation findings.
In 1951, Greek archaeologist Panagiotis Anagnostopoulos, who did extensive excavations in Knossos, claimed that the origin of the olive tree actually lies on the island of Crete.
According to Anagnostopoulos’ research, the cultivation of olive trees on Greek soil first began in Crete 3,500 years ago in the Early Minoan era.
According to some historians, Greeks were the first people to cultivate olive trees in the European Mediterranean area. This knowledge was transported by either Greek settlers or Phoenician merchants.
Ancient Greek tradition has the homeland of the olive tree to be in Athens and the first olive tree to have been planted by the goddess of wisdom, Athena, on Acropolis Hill.
Today, throughout the world, there are approximately 800 million olive trees of which approximately 95 percent are cultivated in the Mediterranean basin, which has the best soil and climatic conditions for olive cultivation.
A total 19,845,300 tons of olives were produced worldwide in 2011, with Spain being the number one producer country with 7,820,060 tons.
Italy comes second with a production of 3,182,204 tons of olives in 2011, and Greece was third with 2,000,000 tons.
The olive is widely grown all over Greece, gracing every nook and cranny of the country with its silvery foliage and ancient mien. 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, as well as a source of magic, inspiring great awe for its powers.
Athletes and warriors would rub it all over their bodies because they believed that it would give them strength and good luck, and the heads of nobles were anointed with it.
Aristotle studied the olive tree and turned its cultivation into to science. The Athenian statesman and lawmaker Solon (639-559 BC) was the first to legislate its protection.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, describes olive oil as the perfect cure for many ailments. The Hippocratic Code mentions more than sixty of its medicinal uses.
It was suitable for the treatment of skin diseases, as a healing ointment and antiseptic in wounds and burns and also for gynecological issues. It was also used as an emetic for inducing vomiting, and for ear problems.
A recent study shows that consuming extra virgin olive oil helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Much like today, ancient Greeks had three categories of olive oil: “Omotrives,” or “omfakinon,” considered the best quality, was produced from unripe olives.
The “second meal” was good quality oil, but always considered second best. Finally, “bulk oil” was the lowest quality oil, made from overripe or crushed olives. The latter was also used for burning in lamps.
Since ancient Greeks were lovers of beauty and all the physical virtues, olive oil was a key element in physical care. Coating the body with oil protected from both the dryness caused by the sun and from the cold.
After the bath, the body and hair were coated with aromatic oil, as this was a key ingredient in many perfumes.
Furthermore, the ancients used it as a lubricant in mechanisms and components while an oil-based ointment was used to preserve ivory, leather, and metal.
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.
Greek olive oil today
Olive oil is an integral part of almost all popular Greek dishes from Greek salad to moussaka and from tzatziki to spanakopita.
Through the ages, it has become synomymous 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.
“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.” NOBEL Prize Winner ODYSSEAS ELYTIS
Today, Greek olive oil is regarded as the best in the world. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) comprises at least 80 percent of olive oil production in Greece while in Crete it reaches close to 90 percent.
After all, cultivation of olive trees and production of olive oil was first traced back to Crete during the Minoan era.
George Sakellaropoulos, a multi-award winning organic EVOO producer from Sparta who exports his products to 18 countries, explains to Greek Reporter what makes Greek olive oil the best in the world:
“Greece is a land where olive trees have been cultivated for many centuries. They are closely connected with the Greek culture and have been a part of it for many years.
“Thus, the olive oil produced in Greece carries all the specific characteristics of the land, the climate, the soil properties and the micro characteristics of each part of Greece.”
Sakellaropoulos says that he is not only proud for his own achievements but mainly for the fact that Greek olive oil has been finally recognized for its top quality.
“The climax of all these global awards of taste and quality came in 2018 and 2019, where our two different multivarietal extra virgin organic gourmet olive oils, Majestic blend EVOO and Gemstone blend EVOO, were honored for two consecutive years, with a first place in the EVOO World Ranking of olive oils, setting a new record in their category,” he tells Greek Reporter.
Rich and aromatic, Greek olive oil is produced only from green olives. Its color, aroma, and flavor vary and depend on the olive variety, location, and type of soil where it is cultivated, as well as the environmental and climatic conditions in which the olive 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 significant factors.
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 must also be taken into account.
The top quality of Greek olive oil has become known all over the world with more and more people recognizing it for its high nutritional value.
Various types of Greek olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is the best quality olive oil. It has an exceptional color, aroma and flavor while its acidity does not exceed one percent. Virgin olive oil, on the other hand, is differentiated from extra virgin olive oil not only because of the degree of acidity, which, however, does not exceed two percent but also because of its flavor.
Substandard virgin olive oil is an olive oil of medium quality and flavor with an acidity that exceeds two percent while mixed olive oil from refined and virgin olive oils has a pleasant flavor and aroma, a yellow-green color, and its acidity does not exceed one percent.
Refined olive oil is nearly tasteless with an acidity of up to 0.3 percent while olive pomace oil has a soft, mild taste and comes from the mixture of refined olive pomace oil and virgin olive oil. Lastly, 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 only in limited quantities.
Nicholas Basoukos, the managing partner of Greek Heritage Foods, a New York-based company which imports Greek olive oil and other foods explains the qualities of Greek extra virgin olive oil. “Greek extra virgin olive oils have very low acidity and peroxides, which make them of premium quality,” he tells Greek Reporter.
The high quality can be recognized mainly from the fruitiness, the bitterness, and the pungency of the oil as well as its aromas, which show the freshness and health of the olives.
All these extraordinary characteristics are the result of proper planting, maintenance and meticulous care in all the stages of olive production and harvesting.
Basoukos believes that some olive oils labelled EVOO sold in 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 a long period of time and when the milling machinery isn’t cleaned properly 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 trace defects which are untraceable from the standard chemical analysis, according to Basoukos.
“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.
The industry is broadening
The international market for olive oil is broadening as new, small-scale producing countries such as South Africa, Chile, Brazil, Tunisia and the U.S.A. (California) are trying for a share.
Basoukos, whose Greek olive oil recently won at the DOMINA olive oil contest in Italy and was one of the oils at the New York Olive Oil Competition, says new countries will be competitive “because they started doing everything right from the beginning.”
However, with a great deal of education and investment, Greece can lead in premium quality EVOO production, he says.
Greece has its own experts, such as Eleftheria Germanaki, an agronomist and an official judge in the most important 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.
“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 continues:
“Τhe 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.”
In the the past 20 years, Greek olive oil producers have boosted production and exports have soared compared to previous decades.
Still, there is room for improvement. Not in quality — Greek olive oil remains the best — but in packaging and marketing strategies.
Much of Greek olive oil is exported in bulk without labelling, enabling buyers — especially from Italy — to use fancy packaging and resell it to other countries as their own.
But this is changing. There are new producers who know the importance of packaging and properly marketing their products to beat the competition.
The better understanding of the value of the product and the importance of marketing strategies along with the optimism of new producers will most likely give Greek olive oil the true place it deserves in international markets.