Extra Virgin Olive Oil : A Long And Noble History

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We trace the history of extra virgin olive oil and the historic benefits of olive oil from earliest known to today. We also examine what makes for best olive oil and the key role of polyphenols in olive oil benefits.

Updated 14th September 2021

Olive Oil History
Olive Oil History

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Where did it all begin?

There can’t be many foods that have endured such world-wide constant popularity as Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  Indeed, for many of us, it is hard to imagine a time when a bottle of the best olive oil you can afford was not a permanent feature in our kitchen stores. The oil derived from the humble olive tree has been a vital source of nutrition and flavour in our diets for centuries. Our love affair with extra virgin olive oil and the cultivation of olive trees dates back around 6000 years, with debate still raging whether its origins were in ancient Persia, Mesopotamia, or Egypt. Despite such extensive history, however, the most common use of extra virgin olive oil has not significantly changed since then, with cooking, beauty and health being the most enduring motivators behind our ongoing devotion to ‘liquid gold’.

The olive was native to Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin. Olive trees were grown in Crete as early as 3,000 BC and their fruits were found in Egyptian tombs from 2,000 years BC.  A strong culture and belief around the powers of olive oil spread through both the Greek and Roman empire and has grown into the modern-day consumption of olives, extra virgin olive oil and a Mediterranean diet that cultures the world over enjoy today.

Over many thousands of years, man has manipulated the olive tree into the countless varieties that we see and consume today.  According to Greek mythology, however, the original olive tree was planted as a gift by Goddess Athena on a rock hill we now know as the Acropolis.  

The Olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are reported to be over 2000 years old.   In ancient times, olive oil was used for everything from anointing the dead to medicines and perfume.

It was Hippocrates who was first known to have used olive oil-based ointments to treat wounds and traumas and, throughout the Middle Ages, its use evolved as a remedy for sore throats, cuts, and bruises.

As the Greek physician himself so famously said:

Let they food be thy medicine and let they medicine be thy food.

Hipprocates

Olive Oil Culture : The Wisdom Of The Ancient World

Olive oil has long been considered sacred. The olive branch was often a symbol of abundance, glory, and peace. Over the years, the olive has also been used to symbolize wisdom, fertility, power, and purity. Olive oil was believed to bestow strength and youth, not least because of the tree’s longevity and its tremendous resilience. Even through the harshest summers and winters they continue to grow strong and bear fruit

Olive oil was used for not only food and cooking, but also lighting, sacrificial offerings, ointment, and ceremonial anointment for priestly or royal office. The leafy branches of the olive tree were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures as emblems of benediction and purification, and they were used to crown the victors of friendly games and bloody wars.

The olive tree is one of the first plants mentioned in the Christian Old Testament, and one of the most significant. An olive branch was brought back to Noah by a dove to demonstrate that the flood was over.

Olive Oil In Ancient Greece

Olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece. It was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples and fuelled the “eternal flame” of the original Olympic games. Victors in these games were crowned with its leaves.

Olive Oil In Ancient Greece
Olive Oil In Ancient Greece

In ancient battles, olive branches were used to crown the victors. Greek soldiers are said to have rubbed olive oil into their bodies for grooming and good health as well as using it in their lamps for lighting.

The Spartans buried their dead on a bed of olive twigs to protect their souls. The olive tree was also used to protect the living, with those who attended funerals wearing crowns of olive branches to guard themselves against evil.

Legend has it that Poseidon, the sea god, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, competed to find the gift that would be most valuable to humankind. Poseidon offered the horse and Athena the olive tree. Because of its many uses, the provision of heat, food, medicine and perfume, the olive tree was chosen as the most valuable and in return for Athena’s contribution, the most powerful city in Greece was named Athens in her honour.

In Greece 500 B.C, olive oil’s revered status was further confirmed by an image of the goddess Athena, with her head crowned with olive oil, imprinted onto the Drachma, the Greek coin. At the time, the Drachma was the Mediterranean’s most circulated currency.

Olive Oil In Ancient Rome

According to Pliny the Elder, a vine, a fig tree, and an olive tree grew in the middle of the Roman Forum; the latter was planted to provide shade.

Oil History In Ancient Rome
Oil History In Ancient Rome

Soaps were not around in the times of the Roman Empire. Instead when Romans went to bathe they rubbed olive oil all over their bodies and then scraped it off with a strigil, carrying away all the dirt and grime with it and leaving the skin silky and moisturized.

In richer patrician households, olive oil was often scented like a perfume, which would leave behind a sweet smell after it was gone. Like now, they would even pour some olive oil into their private baths to relax in them, to soften their skin and relax with some good aromatherapy.

While working out and in official competitions, athletes would rub olive oil all over their skin to make it more slick and smooth. One could also imagine how pleasing this look was to the crowd’s eye in an age where physical perfection of the body was praised and immortalized in statues.

Olive Oil & Islam

The olive tree and olive oil are mentioned seven times in the Quran, and the olive is praised as a precious fruit. Olive trees and olive-oil health benefits have been propounded in Prophetic medicine. The Prophet is reported to have said: “Take olive oil and massage with it – it is a blessed tree”

Is Olive Oil A Food Or A Medicine?

In Rome, olive oil was used for nearly everything in relation to their health. Roman medicine takes heavily from Greek doctors, who influenced European medicine for centuries, and Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine writes about over 60 different conditions or ailments that can be treated with olive oil, including skin problems, burns and wounds, ear infections, gynecological problems, healing surgical scars, and much more. Many of these uses are still valid and are used as home remedies today.

The Roman doctor Galen, who was born in Greece, was also credited with the invention of cold cream, using olive oil as his base for in instead of the modern day mineral oil. It has been in used for over a thousand years for soothing skin and relieving sunburns.

Early Middle Eastern civilisations relied on Olive Oil to cure everything. To this day, many in the region drink olive oil daily to keep the body running efficiently. Warm olive oil is commonly used in the west to soothe earache.

Olive Oil in Central Europe

Archaeologists studying early Celtic remains in France have discovered traces of olive oil on pottery fragments dating from around 500 BCE, providing the earliest known evidence of olive oil use in Central Europe.

The discovery was made while examining the remains of 99 ceramic vessels from the hill fortress of Mont Lassois in Burgundy, east-central France. Traces of organic substances were found on the vessels, including beeswax, beer, wine, millet, milk and olive oil.

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers, led by archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

The early Celts inhabited southern Germany, northern Switzerland and part of eastern France during the Early Iron Age. It has long been known that they traded with Mediterranean communities, adopting not only their goods but also some of their traditions, such as wine-feasting. What was not known was that olive oil was among the foreign imports.

While the researchers are confident that the oil was imported from the Mediterranean coast of France, they still do not know where it was produced.

According to the study, which was published in the scientific journal Plos One in June 2020, the Celts travelled south along the Rhone River to trade with Greek colonies on the French coast, particularly Marseille, bringing back a range of Mediterranean goods. These imports included Greek and Italian pottery, as well as grape wine and olive oil.

The Olive In California

As the Franciscans marched north, establishing missions in California, they also planted olive groves. Southern California saw the first olive trees.

According to an account in Judith Taylor’s book, The Olive in California, a visitor to Mission San Fernando in 1842 saw the mission buildings in ruins but the orchard with a good crop of olives. The visitor remarked that the mission probably had the biggest olive trees in the state. Subsequently in the past 150 years, trees have been planted in several waves along with interest in olives and olive oil. Many of these older groves (80-150 years old) still exist in California. Most are in Northern California. In Southern California population and housing pressure have put the farmers out of business. There are many isolated trees or fragments of old groves but the land is too expensive for olive growing. Income per acre is 10 times lower than other crops like wine grapes and even those can’t compete with development potential. The Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration, and Education Project (MOPREP) aims to preserve the cultural link to the California Mission Olive tree for the purpose of general public education and enjoyment.

Morocco Gold Extra Virgin Olie Oil
Morocco Gold Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive Oil For Cooking Through History

There is also a rich and varied history of extra virgin olive oil being used as a staple cooking ingredient in many cultures and periods of history and is one of the earliest oils used in cooking, next to coconut and seasame..  Perhaps the most common of those is the Mediterranean diet, where it continues to be one of the three key plant-based foods within much of their cuisine; the other two being wheat and the grape.

Extra virgin olive oil was used in both cooked and uncooked dishes with a typical meal containing grains or flour mixed or rubbed with olive oil sometimes with added honey. A favourite cake in Roman times was called vatica which contained only flour, salt and extra virgin olive oil. Different meats were always generously oiled before and after cooking. The ancient Greeks invented the salad dressing which was comprised of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, sea salt and honey.

Olive oil remains a pantry staple to this day as many recipes depend on it, most commonly being used as a dressing in salads. In spite of being a fat, olive oil does not contribute to significant weight gain or obesity, as it has been shown to lower blood sugar levels.

In particular, extra virgin olive oil (or EEVO) has been identified over time as having a superior taste due to being derived by cold mechanical extraction without the use of solvents or refining methods.

In more recent history, the olive and its derivative oils have spread to North and South America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

What Makes Extra Virgin Olive Oil So Special?

Thanks to the recent spotlight on the Mediterranean Diet, extensive research has been done on the phytonutrient composition of extra virgin olive oil. What has been discovered is an extensive list of phytonutrients; one of the most praised is its polyphenols. The amount of polyphenols found in Morocco Gold extra virgin olive oil is truly amazing!

What Are Polyphenols?

Polyphenols are a group of over 500 phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring micronutrients in plants. These compounds give a plant its colour and can help to protect it from various dangers. When you eat plants with polyphenols, you reap the health benefits as well.

Polyphenols In Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Polyphenols are a key component in extra virgin olive oil and are considered to be one of the best health enhancing benefits within the oil. Polyphenols are a potent antioxidant – one that can decommission a nasty molecule in your body called free radicals. Free radicals can ricochet around inside your body and harm good cells. Antioxidants, such as the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil, work to neutralize free radicals, protecting the body from their harmful effects. It’s also thought that polyphenols contribute to keep the body being in an anti-inflammatory state. This is also associated with a lower risk of several chronic diseases. 

Polyphenols In Morocco Gold Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The high polyphenol content of Morocco Gold extra virgin olive oil is dependent on three factors. First is the variety of the olive, secondly the climate and terroire of the growing region and thirdly the actual time in the growing season that the crop is harvested.

Morocco Gold is pressed from the Picholine Marocaine, the only type of olive to go into Morocco Gold. Oil from this variety is renowned for it’s high polyphenol count, oxidative stability and longevity.

Our olives are grown in a valley that is about 2,000 feet above sea level. This helps to create the additional climatic challenges that encourage polyphenol uptake within the olive tree. It is also an area with naturally occurring high phenols in the soil itself.

In soils, phenols are released over extended period of time from decomposing plant materials. This causes complex organic compounds to be slowly oxidized or to break down into simpler forms of sugars,  amino sugars, aliphatic and phenolic organic acids. These are further transformed into microbial biomass or are reorganized, and further oxidized, into humic assemblages (fulvic and humic acids), which bind to clay minerals.

Olive trees grown in ‘challenging’ conditions encourage the uptake of naturally occurring phenols in the soil. This in turn aids the circulatory system within the olive tree, with the phenols eventually finding their way to the olive fruit itself.

Thirdly, our olives are picked when the fruit is young and green. As the olives age on the tree, the colour of the olive changes to red and then black, the size of the olive increases thus producing more oil, but the polyphenol level decreases. There is a great deal of expertise within the farming community where we source our oil to ensure that the harvest is collected at the optimum time to maximise the polyphenol level.

Types Of Polyphenols & Benefits Of Olive Oil

There are a number of different types of polyphenols in Extra Virgin olive oil, including oleuropein, tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol, oleocanthal and oleacein.  Each are considered extremely strong antioxidants, and are linked to a number of different benefits, including:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil : Ancient Wisdom That Lives On

The olive branch continues to be the symbol of peace:

If politics divide men, then good food brings them back together. In a world that finds it difficult to identify with the core values of human rights, sustainable development and peace, cooking remains a shared, every-day, and universal value.

Michael Moller, Director-General of the United Nations.
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