Olive oil – part 1

Olive oil is a fruit oil from the olive, the Olea Europaea. One could spend a life time researching and reading about this tiny little fruit (it is actually a drupe, a “one-seeded fruit with a fleshy outer pericarp and a bony endocarp” like na plum or apricot). I have no intention of doing this, but it is rather interesting to know what you are putting in your mouth every time you drizzle your oil over something. Because it is such a long story, I’ll divide it up into five articles that will consist of the history (with some historical recipes, just for fun), one on the olive itself with recipes which will include some preservation ideas, followed by Spain, Italy and Greece since they are the three largest producers of olive oil in the world – and in that order.

Olive leaf fossils were found in Mongardino in Italy, fossilized remains at the Relilai snail hatchery in North Africa and the seeds and bits and pieces in Spain – dating back to the Bronze age, which takes the existence of the tree right back to 12th century BC. I could not find proof anywhere as to exactly which tree and since I am going to stick to the eating kind that we know today, I will start the process of making the oil in Crete where modern genetics have proved to us the olive we use today originated. It was developed from the many wild trees that grew in Africa spread North and (since the Egyptians could do nothing decent with it) finally landed up in Roman territory where the Greeks started making it on the island of Crete and exported it right back to the Egyptians! My thanks then, to the ingenious Greeks!!!  I’m cutting the history short because this site is about food and whilst we are all, probably, closet food historians, there is a time and a place for everything.   I have put the most interesting theories right at the end for those who may be interested – with my personal opinion rock bottom.
As I mentioned above Spain, Italy and Greece are the three largest producers of olive oil in the world. Greece is the oldest and probably where the manufacturing of the oil all began. The first olive trees were cultivated in Crete (there are amphorae dating back to 3,500 BC on the Island which would be fascinating to see).  It so it seems that it all started on “the limestone hills of Attica” and by the time of Solon the olive production was so vibrant that he felt it necessary to legalise the laws controlling cultivation of the trees in Attica. My knowledge of Solon is almost non-existent and I have not been unable to find enough information in the books at my disposal. I know he was a poet of sorts and that he dabbled in politics but it seems that many articles or papers supposedly written by him, were in fact written by later authors who gave him the credit – for a reason that I have not been able to work out myself. From there it went to all the allies of Athens (a natural progression) and then to the surrounding states. The Phoenicians’ ships could have taken cuttings or plants on their travels and that would have spread quickly wherever they traveled.  Albeit fascinating, it loses importance there at this point in time.

I am an eternal romantic and I love the idea that many of the ancient presses are still in use today – with some of them having been used by the Romans. Think about it olive oil was being extracted from olives 5,000 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean. Documents on perfectly preserved clay tablets (by a fire that destroyed the palace but baked the tablets) have been found in the archives of Ebla (2,600 BC) which was outside Aleppo in Syria. After that we know that Egyptians imported oil from Crete, as well as Syria and , with proof found in the 4,000 year old jugs in a tomb on the island of Naxos.
In 1492 when America was discovered the cultivation of olive oil spread to the American continent and by 1560 we see olive groves growing prolifically in Mexico where olive oil is an important part of their daily lives. It spread to south America and today olive trees grow in Africa, Australia, Japan and of course, China. The well known old Arauco olive tree, brought over during the Conquest of Argentina, is still alive today!

For today’s recipes I have chosen a few that use olive oil abundantly from a foodie name Columella who wrote in the Roman times. I have adapted his recipes to suit our palates, sticking as far as possible to the original.  For the sake of interest, I have included the original Latin, just in case someone is having a Roman dinner – the adapted version with my interpretation follows below it. What I find interesting to note is the sweetness of the Roman food – something that features in all their food.  They clearly all had very “sweet teeth”!


Addito in mortarium satureiam: mentam, rutam, coriandrum, apium, porrum sectivum, aut si non erit viridem cepam, folia latucae, folia erucae, thymum viride, vel nepetam, tum etiam viride puleium, et caseum recentem et salsum: ea omnia partier conterito, acetique piperati exiguum, permisceto. Hanc mixturam cum in catillo composurris, oleum superfundito.

I have added salt, used mint instead of pennyroyal since we use it nowadays for aromatherapy and it’s really bad for you! I have also excluded catmint because it’s the same as catnip and the thought of eating something that my cats eat, is off putting to put it mildly.  Instead of the salted fresh cheese I have chosen goats milk feta – and that’s only because I assume that it would be reasonably close to whatever it is, he is talking about.
In a pestle and mortar, pound the following:
200 g fresh mint
100 g fresh coriander
100 g fresh flat leaf parsley
400 g goats milk feta
2 small leeks – I would use red Spanish onions here,  for crunch.  The leeks make the salad flat and too soft, somehow for my taste.
A sprig of  fresh thyme, finely chopped
Champagne vinegar
About 100 ml olive oil (even though it seems that the whole lot was drenched in the stuff)

(He often uses pine nuts or nuts, but I would imagine pine nuts would be good)

How to do it

He uses a pestle and mortar and crushes everything, but nowadays we prefer not to eat this way, so I use  a sharp knife and chopping board to chop the mint and the thyme (I have tried mint leaves as a salad and it was horrible) and leave the rest whole. I also used champagne vinegar because of the idea of really tart wine vinegar was all too much for me.


Aliter lenticulam: coquis. Cum despumaverit porrum et coriandrum viride supermittis. (Teres) coriandri semen, puleium, laseris radicem, semen mentae et rutae, suffundis acetum, adicies mel, liquamine, aceto, defrito temperabis, adicies oleum, agitabis, si quid opus fuerit, mittis. Amulo obligas, insuper oleum viride mittis, piper aspargis et inferes.

I have used neither pennyroyal nor “liquamine” (garum) because Pliny the Elder’s description that  “it looked like aged honey wine and was often mixed with wine to drink” and his explanation that it was made with fish, fish intestines and salt and then allowed to ferment in sealed containers is sharply contradicted by a young poet named Martial who tells that it was made from the blood of a still breathing mackerel!  Forget that! I couldn’t.  Anyway one cannot get it anymore. I substituted it with soy sauce.  I don’t know what laser root is and left it out. Rue seeds taste like really strong blue cheese according to the Romans and like really bitter Campari to me. It’s part of the citrus family and contains lots of rutin, the bitter in the pith of oranges. It was often used in ancient Roman cooking and is sometimes still used in Italy. It is a favorite in Ethiopian dishes, goes well with acidic flavours, is added to pickles, used in meat, cheese, or eggs and tastes good with olives and capers in sauces.  So they say.  Rue is sometimes used with liqueurs as in Grappa con ruta. To get it seems too much trouble, so use the Grappa if you feel like it.  I didn’t.
My interpretation:
250 g green whole lentils
1,5 liters water
1 leek, finely chopped
10 g fresh coriander seeds, crushed
70 g fresh chopped coriander
5 g pepper corns
3 g mint seeds
75 g fresh mint, finely chopped
7ml ml light and 7 ml dark soy sauce mixed to taste (or to taste)
15 ml good white wine vinegar
10ml honey
Loads of olive oil

Wash the lentils, boil them in salted*  water until half cooked.
Clear any scum that has collected on the water and freshen should you wish
Add the leeks and the coriander.
Continue cooking until the water has almost evaporated and the lentils are just soft
In the last five minutes add the soya sauce, the mint seeds, the fresh mint, the fresh coriander, pepper, the honey, vinegar and the olive oil to taste.
Check and correct the taste.

It’s really delicious, actually and very good with a both white Sauvignon Blanc or a good  Pinot noir.  I’m not too confident about their wines – so no comment here.    *I added salt to the boiling water.

An ancient olive oil press


Ius in cordula assa: piper, ligustcum, mentam, cepam, aceti modicum et oleum.

They approached their fish simply as you can see by the short recipe which simply tells you to make a sauce,  roast the fish and get on with it.  My approach to fish exactly. Simply – and  please don’t overcook the tuna! There can be nothing more disgusting than overcooked tuna. My personal nightmare dish is grey, overcooked tuna. If that happens, give it to the dog and if the dog won’t have it. Don’t blame him.  Finally, with reference to the lovage:  in Europe it’s called Maggikraut in Germany and Maggiplant in Holland because it tastes like their Maggi soup seasoning. In Romania it’s Leustean.
My interpretation:

One blazing barbecue fire
Tuna fillets – as many as you need – this recipe should be enough for 4
3 tablespoons lemon juice (the recipe calls for a robust white vinegar, but I don’t like the idea and they had lemons at the time)
2 tablespoons anchovy paste – ie. Anchovies turned into a paste in a pestle and mortar
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon crushed black pepper
1 teaspoon lovage seeds
30 g fresh, chopped mint

Put everything with the exception of the pepper  and lovage seeds in the blender and blend well;
Pour into jug and add the pepper and the lovage

Brush the well dried tuna fillets with oil and grill that side on the hot barbecue
Turn and brush the roasted side with the sauce
Do this again and continue until the outside is well cooked.
Do not cook the inside
Only cook the outside
Remove from fire

Serve with the olive oil sauce drenching the fish.  Drink whatever wine you like but the Romans drank red wine and I would drink a nice chilled glass of dry Rose because I would be hot from the fire.  If you want to be authentic – ask an Italian friend for a contact in one of the little towns in Italy where they still make their own wine, then …. beg.

Enjoy the dinner!

For the few readers that may find it interesting, herewith a very very shortened version of the most the three most interesting theories in this discussion.
Firstly I’ll mention the  Phoenicians side of the story where the Phoenicians in 16th century BC started the picking the olive in the Greek isles and they introduced it to the Greeks in their own mainland between the 14th and 12th centuries BC.  I’m serious, but it is something I just read on the internet and it’s late so, I think it’s an amusing tale.  Secondly we have my beloved Italians who insist that because the Romans were going to Tripoli and Tunis and the Island of Sicily, they were responsible for it all – even 300 years before the fall of Troy. Some others believe that the tree was brought to Italy during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus the Elder around 616 and onwards BC most probably from Tripoli (and absolutely not via Cleopatra! They go on and explain that the Romans then took this to Spain during their maritime domination.
However, there is excellent historical proof that wild olives were harvested by the Neolithic people around 8000 BC – proving that the trees probably originated in Asia Minor and could have been domesticated in Asia Minor around 6700 BC and then the Levantine coast in 4000 BC moving on to  Mesopotamia in  3000 BC. But the production of the oil was known to have started before 4,000 BC – the Canaanites were producing oil by 4,500 BC.

This last paragraph is one that makes sense to me and whilst I have flipped through millennia here I do think this makes sense. It’s a fascinating study and has increased my respect for this little fruit so much and I am extremely grateful to all those who came before me to give me such pleasure every day of my life.



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6 responses to “Olive oil – part 1

  1. This is so detailed and complex and wonderful! Thank you!

    (and as for the garum, theres this type of Thai fish sauce… 🙂 )

  2. I was thinking of fish sauce as well …. but would it be intense enough?
    At least the fish weren’t alive when they were turned into sauce …… Romans had preservation methods that would have made even the most diabolical amongst us shudder.

  3. As usual you have me memorized from the first line and that bowl of olives looked so tempting! Thanks so much for your wonderfully informative blog.

  4. So the question begs to be asked….which oil of the 3 main producers to you prefer most? I mean, the answer would appear obvious to this one 😉 but I’ve heard about those greek and spanish olive oils and I’m wondering if you could even suggest some of your favorite producers. Very informative post, and that garum….hmmm…if it’s anything like patis/fish sauce or the even gnarlier bagoong/fermented shrimp paste, then I think it would actually find a place in my kitchen!

  5. Naturally I prefer the Italian, but I’ve had some really excellent Spanish and Greek olive oil, so it’s a difficult question.

    Frankly, they are so different from one another that one would have to discuss each one separately.

  6. … and I will be doing a section on favourite producers and other trivia in the final part of this lengthy tale ….

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