Olive Oil, Part 5 – Greece

history of oil, categorization, main area discussion, recipes,

No matter which way we look at and how often we discuss it, the fact remains that the Greeks were the first to make olive oil. They didn’t find the tree first, nor did they use it first, but they made the oil first. Whether it was the Minoans in Crete or old King Nestor himself in Pylos is not really important anymore, especially not when it comes to food and eating today. What is important is that we are able to consider everything there is to offer, learn what we can from one another and give unbiased credit where it is due.  Today we credit the Greeks and the undeniably important role they play in the production of olive oil.

I will include recipes intermittently in this article because the first section is only about the history of olive oil in Greece and whilst there are many ancient Greek recipes, they are so similar to the recipes of today (give or take on or two rather startling ones) that it serves little purpose.

Aromatikó Eleólado
(Spiced Olive Oil)

500 ml Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 whole nutmeg, grated
2 teaspoons cloves, ground finely
2 cinnamon sticks
15 poppy leaves

Thoroughly combine the nutmeg and the cloves and put into a dry, clean bottle with the rest of the spices. Add the olive oil and put in a cool, dry place for about 2 to 3 weeks before using it.  Make sure the bottle is tightly sealed. This is very old recipe for oil is used in the production of sweets up to this day, but also served as an appetizer, drizzled over bread.  Do try it.

I spend hours bewitched by history books and more than anything I love studying the history of food. I can spend days reading about the ancient discoveries at Pylos where urns were found with images of olive oil harvesting still clearly visible, the writings describing a myriad of discoveries relating to the Byzantine period’s obsession with olive oil and the Peloponnese oil production practices that seem so similar to the ones used in Messina. Even then there was one country (or to us, nowadays, an island) that always stands alone, apart – superior to all the others. Crete. From the time of the Minoans, Crete was always more aloof, more reserved and more sure of themselves and their precious olive oil because they knew then, as they do now that they make the best olive oil in Greece.  So what exactly changed then? Let’s see.

This recipe originated in the Peloponnese where pork is plentiful.  Make sure that you use really good pork
(Pork in Wine)

200 ml extra virgin Greek olive oil
1kg diced pork leg
500 ml dry white wine
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar (this is not traditional, simply something I add because I like it)
1 bay leaf
Fresh rosemary twigs
Few spring onions, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
One lemon

Heat some of the olive oil in the pan and fry the meat until it has been completely browned. Add wine, bay leaf, one twig of rosemary, salt and pepper and add enough water to cover the meat.
Braise until the meat is tender and the water has just about evaporated, but remember to continue checking to see that it does not burn.
Sprinkle with rosemary, some roughly chopped spring onion and then add the rest of the oil and serve with baked potatoes or rice and slices of lemon.

The Mycenaean civilization that flourished around 1600-1150 BC, after the Minoan civilization, lived on mainland Greece and they considered olive oil production as an important, if not the most important sector of their economy. Thanks to the decipherment of the “Linear B” script we learnt about the production, the general business methodology and the export of the oil in Mycenaean Greece, as noted in the palace records of Mycenae and Pylos. (See image of stirrup jar below, used for oil transportation). It was long after that, as I mentioned earlier in this series – around 600 BC,  that Solon had the first laws enacted so that both oil and tree could be protected.

Greece was becoming powerful and so, during the Byzantine period, the production of olive oil was flourishing and the Greeks produced half of all the oil used in the known world. On top of that, their oil was exported throughout the known world. Something that always tickles me is that most of the oil was produced in lands belonging to the monasteries, so when the Turks conquered Greece, oil production was not affected in the least. The Turks allowed everything to go on as it always had and, naturally, profited from it since the monks didn’t pose a threat.  Or did they?  The ‘thing’ was that even though control of the total production was taken over by the Turks, it was only the Greeks who knew how to do everything so they controlled everything related to production. This meant that the Turks really didn’t own anything that the Greeks didn’t want them to have anyway.  Until today Greece is one of the most important players in the olive oil export market and the third largest producer of olive oil in the world.  Considering the size of the country that is one huge achievement.

In traditional Greek families an olive tree is planted when a child is born.

Whilst Greece is an amazing country and both mainland and islands are breathtaking, it is Crete that holds that special attraction for me.  The Cretans are passionate, proud and fiercely independent and did not become part of Greece until 1913, and then only on their own terms. Their history is so intertwined with mythology and legend that many of the older people disregard that which we call history, often making me wonder just who got it right. It is here that Zeus grew up and it is also here that the Minoans first lived over thousands of years ago

Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous Greek author, said that the Cretan landscape is like really good writing – uncluttered and powerful but also restrained.  Thirty million olive trees provide 30% of the total Greek olive oil production (the Peloponnese 26%) and despite the tribulations endured simply because they lived on such a strategically important crossroad for sea trade routes, the Cretans have remained the proudest Greeks of all.  Incidentally, their oil is the best oil in Greece. So what changed in Crete?  Nothing.

Since the earliest times, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace, possibly because the takes so long to bear fruit – at least eight years and is at it’s most productive between 60 and 100 years of age. It is common cause that the olive branch is the symbol of Greece and we all know about Noah’s dove, the Roman Pax and the Christian catacomb paintings, but do we know enough about Greek olive oil?

The most favoured varieties of olive oil are derived from the following olives:

  • Koronéiki
  • Throumboliá
  • Tsounáti

Cretan olive oil is the only oil in Greece to have been awarded the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Further to this, since 1993 olive oil has been produced organically in Crete.  Surely this is a good enough reason to buy Cretan oil?

The various olive oil categories in Greece are:

  • Exertikó parthéno eleólado (extra virgin olive oil) – the best cold pressed olive oil from the first pressing
  • Eklektó parthéno eleólado (fine virgin olive oil) – cold pressed olive oil from the second pressing
  • Imi-fino parthéno eleólado (semi-fine virgin olive oil)
  • Kinó parthéno eleólado (ordinary virgin olive oil) – old pressed olive oil from the third pressing
  • Wiomiohanikó parthéno eleólado (lampante virgin olive oil) – an inferior olive oil, unsuitable for consumption
  • Rafinarisméno eleólado (refined olive oil) – suitable for consumption after it has been refined but less aromatic
  • Eleólado – a blend of virgin and refined oils

The recipes below use significant amounts of olive oil and all of them are delicious.

(Artichokes with fava beans)

10 artichokes, leaves and chokes removed
1 lemon, juice and zest
250 ml Greek olive oil
2 bunches spring onions, chopped
1 kg fava beans, shelled
1 bunch dill, roughly chopped
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp flour mixed to a paste with the juice of 1 lemon

Rub the artichoke hearts with the lemon juice;
Saute the the spring onions and lemon zest very lightly, add the artichoke hearts and the fava beans with the dill;.
Simmer over low heat for about 1 hour in 500 ml water.
Now thicken the liquid with the flour and lemon mixture and serve hot.

Bakaliáros me prása
(Stockfish with leeks)

1 kg stockfish (dried cod, ie bacalhau)
250 ml Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 kg leeks
500 g tomatoes, peeled, seeded & chopped
100 g flat leaf parsley, chopped finely
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak the fish for at least 12 hours, changing the water as one normally does.  If anyone doesn’t know how to do this, please just ask us and we’ll post a “how to” note.
Heat the olive oil in a pan, sauté the leeks and then add about 200 ml water, the lemon zest, salt and pepper and cook on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Now add the tomatoes and then place the fish on top of the vegetables, sprinkle with the parsley and cook for half an hour. Check often to see that nothing sticks to the bottom.

Serve warm.

My last recipe is for Joan who adores this dish and can never get enough. Naturally there are more than one version, as with all Greek recipes, but this one is so simple and perfect for a busy teacher.  So here goes Joan, hope you enjoy this.

Youvétsi me Arnáki
Baked Orzo with Lamb

1 kg lamb, diced.  (I like using shoulder of lamb here)
125 g butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 tomatoes, peeled and pureed
500 grams kritharáki
100 grams kefalotíri cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 twig rosemary

Preheat your oven to 180 C.

Melt the butter, brown the meat and then add the onion to it and brown.
Now add the tomatoes, zest, the rosemary and season with salt and pepper and simmer on low heat for about 45 minutes. Remove from the stove, add the kritharáki and stir well.

Turn this mixture out into an ovenproof dish (or separate dishes if you choose), fill with hot stock and bake for about 45 minutes until the meat is tender and the orzo done. Just before the cooking period is over, add the cheese on top and bake until it’s golden brown.

I don’t often do this, but I found a really interesting recipe online (even though I swear by books) and thought I’d share it with you, so here is an alternative to mine, a Cypriot Yiouvetsi

Serve with a green salad and good wine.



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7 responses to “Olive Oil, Part 5 – Greece

  1. CB

    Maybe you can answer something for me. Forgive me if you talked about it in one of your previous articles. I clicked on a link at a different website which took me directly here.

    I have been told by some people that olive oil should only be used raw, in salads, pestos and the like. No sauteing or baking with it. Others say that it can be used up to about 350. What is your opinion. I confess that I commit a huge olive oil no-no: Any time a baked good recipe calls for oil I use light olive oil, and I use EV for all my other cooking. However, if there are health consequences for cooking with olive oil I would like to know so I can change my ways.

  2. Good evening,

    When using this extra virgin olive oil should, ideally, be heated to a temperature of 170 C (338 F) when frying, the fine virgin olive oil is suitable for broiling, baking and frying and the ordinary virgin oil for cooking of vegetables and stews and for salads.

    Naturally they can all be used in their natural state.

    You will be fine and seem to have a sensible approach to food. I suggest you continue the way you are and don’t fret.

    Please feel free to ask us anything you need to know – should we be able to assist you, we will and if not we will guide you to suitable websites or contact persons in your area.

    Enjoy your weekend.

  3. Jacoba! What a wonderful series on olive oil!!! Thank you for taking the time to write all 5 parts ( is there more to come?). A very informative series of postings. I waited for this one before commenting as I wanted to see how you would treat the matter. Above all, I admire your honesty. Thank you. I too am a huge fan of the island of Crete, and they do make excellent olive oil. Olive oil from Petrina which is in Laconia (south-central Peloponnese) is also a superior oil and it is pressed from the superb Koroneiki olives which grow in the region; indeed, I would say it is a rival of the Cretan variety and it too has been granted PDO status by the EU, see: http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/qual/en/270_en.htm
    Furthermore, most of the olive cultivation in Greece is (or soon will be) organic. Oh, and let me not forget your recipes… all of them are authentic examples of Greek cuisine and I am impressed with your knowledge of Greek food! Good work, keep it up!

  4. Wow Sam!! That has made my day.
    Yup, I did hear about Petrina, but I was under the impression that this was still in the process of (which meant that I could not publish it yet) – just shows you how important these comments are. How else do we learn?

    I think Greece will be the only country in Europe to achieve that organic status, actually.

    Regarding the food, I did say I liked to eat and I did spend some time there, especially in Crete!

  5. Oh yes – I will be doing one or two more on olive oil, it is such a massive industry.

  6. I am craving artichokes, that dish with the beans looks lovely.

  7. I love artichokes as well – I see them far too seldom, though in Cape Town, where I live, though.

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