How olive oil became the Europe’s ‘liquid gold’

How olive oil became Europe’s ‘liquid gold’

by Great Italian Chefs 11 October 2019

Why is it we always turn to olive oil in our kitchens? We take a journey back into antiquity to look at how and why olive oil became such a valuable commodity.

Great Italian Chefs is a team of passionate food-lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy.

Great Italian Chefs is a team of food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy. From Veneto and Lombardy in the north to Calabria and Sicily in the south, we celebrate the very best of this glorious cuisine and try to bring you a little bit of la dolce vita wherever you are.

It’s extremely rare that we don’t reach for a bottle of olive oil whilst we’re cooking – if we’re not sweating or frying things in it, we’re making a dressing, a mayonnaise, splashing a glug into bread and pasta dough or greasing the inside of a tin. Olive oil has become a ubiquitous staple in our kitchens, but how did that come to be? You can make oil from all sorts of different things – vegetables, sunflower seeds, rapeseeds – so why are we so obsessed with oil taken from olives, specifically? The answer to that question lies in antiquity, among the pages of ancient historical texts and archaeological findings.

The cultivation of olive trees is one of the earliest signs we have of civilisation in Europe and Asia; in fact, olive growing actually predates any form of written language by at least a thousand years. Though olive oil is a cornerstone of European cookery today, the olive tree (Olea Europaea) has its roots far away from Europe, in ancient Mesopotamia.

Archaeologists in Galilee discovered traces of olive oil in a pot that dates back to 6000BC. Modern-day Syria is widely considered to be the birthplace of the wild olive tree and provides some of the earliest evidence for the pressing of olive oil; clay tablets from the old Kingdom of Ebla (discovered near Aleppo) reveal that the production of olive oil was a major industry in the area around 3000BC, and suggests that the ownership of olive trees was a significant status symbol.

Visit Syria today and you’ll see dense forests of olive trees carpeting the more verdant parts of the country, particularly the north. Over time, olive trees made their way around the Mediterranean, largely via seafaring traders. By 3000BC, olives had reached Crete and had already become a highly prized commodity – indeed, some speculate that olives contributed to the vast wealth of the Minoan civilisation around this time.

Wild olive groves cover large swathes of modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel, as well as North Africa and the Mediterranean
Olive trees have their roots in the eastern Mediterranean, but were transported far and wide by seafaring civilisations like the Phoenicians

As olive trees spread across the Mediterranean, olives became enormously valuable because of the myriad uses for olive oil. Not only was it prized for consumption and cooking, olive oil was also important medicinally; ancient Greeks used olive oil as soap, and Hippocrates called it ‘the great healer’ – frequently referring to its use as a remedy for many illnesses at the time. In the pages of Homer’s Iliad, the Greek poet refers to olive oil as ‘liquid gold’ in a passage where Achilles is washed with olive oil by damsels.

The discovery of jars of olive oil in tombs around Greece and even Egypt suggests that it was left with the dead to help their passing to the afterlife. It was used as fuel in lamps, and as anointment in important ceremonies. Olive trees were equally important – olive wreaths were given to victorious generals and athletes alike, and olive branches became a symbol of peace. As the sacred guardian of olive groves, Athena was given huge importance in the pantheon of Greek gods, so much so that Athenian citizens named their city Athens in their honour.

‘There are two liquids that are especially agreeable to the human body – wine for the inside and oil for the outside.’

Pliny the Elder (Natural History 14, 150)

That significance continues into the Roman period, as do the myriad uses. Though much of Rome’s history was bloody, the olive tree continued to be a symbol of peace and prosperity. As the Roman Empire stretched far and wide, to the northern shores of modern-day France, Spain and North Africa, more olive groves were planted and cultivated and olive oil became even more widespread. Such was the appetite for olive oil in Rome, the city received a steady stream of boats laden with amphorae of oil, particularly from North Africa and Spain where the climate was perfect for olive growing. The remains of those amphorae can be seen at Monte Testaccio – a man-made mountain constructed from the thousands upon thousands of oil jars that still stands to this day.

Rome would eventually fall in the sixth century, but we still live on the foundation of Roman culture today. Roman roads still span swathes of Europe, Roman buildings still stand defiantly in old imperial towns, and the olive groves that were planted all over the Mediterranean continue to produce fruit. Take a look at the gnarled, twisted olive trees in Spain, Italy, Greece, the south of France, North Africa and Mesopotamia – these trees have stood here, in some cases, for 5,000 years. They grew the same olives that fed Ebla, that washed Achilles, that lit the houses of Rome at night.

As we know, not all olive oils are created equal. There’s a good reason why these groves have survived for millennia – they were highly valued by people who understood what makes good olives and olive oil. We may have evolved technologically in the last 2,000 years, but when it comes to producing quality olive oil, it pays to look back to our ancestors. That’s why Carapelli – in its quest to put great olive oil on your table – puts such an emphasis on following the wisdom of its ancestors. The production methods are all natural – olives are picked by hand, or carefully shaken from the branches before they go to the press. After pressing, Carapelli’s master blenders take the best oils from olives all over Europe and combine their flavours into rounded profiles. In working with those ancient groves, Carapelli is the latest in a long line of great olive oil makers that stretches back many thousands of years – it’s not just about producing the best quality olive oil possible, it’s also about maintaining a link to the past.