Table of Contents
To begin our journey to discover the olive tree, detaching ourselves from the Mediterranean is impossible. Cultivated in the lands bathed by this sea, the olive tree has spread from the coasts of Syria and Palestine up to the Pillars of Hercules. The journey of the oil begins, in fact, from Tiro di Phoenicia. The olive tree kept in this city in the temple of Melqart, the Phoenician god of vegetation, navigation, and colonial expeditions, identifiable with the more famous Hercules for Greek civilization, is transported by sea to Cadiz.
Following the spread of the olive tree, the oil obtained from its fruits is also produced in various areas of the Mediterranean. Already recognized at the time as a precious product, merchants of multiple civilizations crossed the sea and the desert to trade it. The oil, transported in amphorae or very precious vases of processed glass paste, thus reaches various cities where it is used in cooking and for religious cults as an ointment.
Given its ancient origins, it is not surprising to find numerous myths about the olive tree that introduce it into the present human imagination.
One of the best-known Greek myths, in particular, attributes the birth of the first olive tree to the goddess Athena.
Legend has it that Poseidon and Athena, competing for the sovereignty of Attica, competed over who would offer the most beautiful gift to the people of Athens. Poseidon made the horse rise from the ground, fast and strong, an animal capable of helping the Athenians during their battles. Athena on the other hand, striking a rock with her spear, caused the first olive tree to grow from the earth, very useful for the population because it was truly versatile.
Thanks to its fruits, the Athenians could illuminate the night, heal wounds, and feed the population. Zeus, judge of the challenge, chose the most peaceful element: the olive tree, thus attributing the victory to Athena, who became the goddess of Athens.
This narrative demonstrates how the history of the olive tree is truly long-lived. Several studies demonstrate that this plant arrived in Greece in ancient times, about 4,000 years ago, and numerous historical finds tell the importance that the olive tree and oil have for this civilization, in every phase of its evolution and in countless sectors.
The oil arrives in Italy
In Italy, where oil still plays a key role today, how did the olive tree and oil arrive? The first appearance of the olive tree in Italy dates back to 3,500 years ago, but this product began to spread more widely around the 7th century BC thanks to the work of Phoenician and Carthaginian merchants and Greek colonists.
Here, in the Italian cities of Magna Graecia, oil is used in various ways: not only in food, but also in cosmetics, in religious rites, as a medicine, for the health of the body and for illumination. Oil is an indispensable resource in everyday life, to say the least. Given the increasingly important role of oil, the Etruscans and Italians soon began to learn the techniques for cultivating the olive tree and extracting oil from its fruits from the Greek and Phoenician merchants. This is how countless olive groves were born in Italy and oil began to be produced.
The arrival in the Iberian peninsula
Another very important stage in the journey of the olive tree is without a doubt that of its arrival in the Iberian peninsula. In the 8th century BC, Phoenician merchants brought olives and oil to the Mediterranean coast of this area, which were essential for trade throughout the Iberian peninsula. In fact, the Phoenicians founded the city of Cadiz, a bridge between the Mediterranean and the local cities, and right here the merchants brought, in addition to oil, also ceramics, ivories, jewels, perfumes and luxury goods to purchase metals of which the Spain was rich: copper, silver, gold…
It is also thanks to this intense exchange activity that the Iberian peninsula becomes the most important olive oil province in the Mediterranean.
It was the Romans who spread the plant throughout the territories of the Empire and imposed the payment of taxes in the form of olive oil. During their empire, olive cultivation saw enormous development. Thanks to them, the process of olive cultivation and oil production improved and the spread of the product reached the territories of Northern Europe.
The Romans also classified oil into 5 different types, also based on the different types of pressing. During this period, given the flourishing development of this market, new professional figures were also born: oil sellers.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, olive cultivation also fell out of favor and for centuries olive groves survived only in a few territories.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
In the Middle Ages, the best lands were recovered for the production of basic cereals and for the cultivation of the olive tree, thanks to the intuition of part of the commercial bourgeoisie, who saw oil as a flourishing trade. In 1400 Italy became the largest producer of olive oil in the world. In this period, in some areas of the Bel Paese the use of aimal fats such as butter was preferred to oil.
In the Renaissance, thanks to the Cistercian and Benedictine abbeys, custodians of plants and herbs, olive growing and viticulture were saved from abandonment.
Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
The eighteenth century saw the birth of a real cataloging of the olive tree and its fruits, classified according to their geographical origin. The ever-growing economy encourages its cultivation, and the fame of yellow gold expands, thus reaching most European countries. The quality of the Italian product begins to be recognized, and it is precisely in the eighteenth century that Liguria and Tuscany refined their olive growing skills, extending their cultivation to the maximum. During the nineteenth century, olive groves invaded Umbria, a region destined to remain one of the major producers of oil for a long time.
The importance of Olive oil in the Mediterranean Diet
Oil is closely linked to the Mediterranean: it has changed its history, but has also characterized its diet. In fact, this golden nectar is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, the eating style followed in various countries overlooking this sea.
The olive oil is an importance source of unsaturated fats,and has extraordinary properties from a nutritional point of view.
Thanks to its lipid composition and the presence of antioxidants helps with the prevention of diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and is useful for the health of the intestine and the immune system thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
The various usages of the olive oil
As we have seen over the centuries, throughout its evolution, oil has been used in various sectors. In Roman times it was used as a fuel for lighting, as an ointment to use before sporting activity to protect the skin from the sun and promote hydration, as a medicine to promote wound healing or as an excipient to treat ulcers, colic or fever. Furthermore, the best quality oil is used not only in cooking, but also for religious offerings and to produce perfumes.
Some ancient uses of oil have persisted over time and we are not just referring to cooking! In fact, the oil is widely used in cosmetics to produce, in particular, body and hair care products as it boasts hydrating, emollient, soothing and elasticising properties and is an excellent ally for relieving skin irritations and giving vigor and strength to the hair ( find out 6 alternative uses of extra virgin olive oil here ).