There are few places in the world where one can properly contemplate the roots of civilization that in the shade of a sun-drenched tavern on a Greek island. Eventually, once you have inevitably fallen victim to these philosophical thoughts as Plato or Socrates did before us, you will be sitting at a simple table garnished with the very same nectar that first lubricated the minds and souls of the ancients: pure golden fresh-squeezed olive oil.
Along with the effervescent sunlight and clear blue seas, olives have become one of the prime symbols of true Hellenic culture. Somehow miraculously, despite the attention given to the godly fruit, olive oil has remained one of Greece’s best kept secrets. Though Greece is a relatively small country of only 10 million people, they are the world’s third largest producer of olive oil (behind Italy and Spain) and Greeks are by far the largest consumers of olive oil in the world. The average olive oil consumption of every single Greek man, woman and child is over 26 liters per person annually and even more than that on the island of Crete, which also boasts one of the world’s highest average life expectancy. This is compared to less than a liter per person annual average consumption in North America.
In Greece today, olive oil production accounts for approximately 10% of the total agricultural production. Greek growers tend some 14 million olive trees though in this rocky and rugged land the cultivation of the olive is often not that different from the methods used in ancient times. Olives – and their oil – have been a part of every Mediterranean culture since the dawn of time. As early mankind made his first precious footsteps into an agrarian culture, the olive tree was one of the first plants to be truly cultivated. The Minoan Greeks were the first civilization to engage in full-scale cultivation of the olive. Incredibly, fossilized olive leaves dating to 37,000 B.C. have been discovered on the Greek island of Santorini.
The olive and its oil quickly spread throughout the modern world, though the Mediterranean is still where its soul is so firmly rooted. When Zeus strutted down from Mt. Olympus seeking the right deity to rule over Attica at the hill where the marbled Acropolis would stand, he devised a contest and the god who gave mankind the best gift would win. Poseidon gave man the horse, atop which man might ride where he pleased and even conquer kingdoms with. Athena, the incredible goddess of wisdom, produced an olive tree for Athens and her glories began to flourish.
The wise trunk of the olive tree is indeed firmly rooted in the history of Greek civilization. Homer called olive oil ‘liquid gold,’ Hippocrates called it ‘the great healer,’ and the poetess Sappho sang the praises of the olive from the island of Lesvos, still a major source of Greek olive oil today. When Odysseus returned from his odyssey, he collapsed happily upon the bed he had created for Penelope from an old but proud olive tree. The earliest histories and ancient wisdoms have been written down in the light given from the olive oil lamp. In Ancient Greece, the olive tree was so sacred, that for a time virgins and young men sworn to chastity were the only souls allowed to harvest its divine fruit. Olympic victors were crowned with its wreaths and even the staff of Hercules himself was carved from an olive trunk. When Xerxes invaded Ancient Greece from Persia, he destroyed the Acropolis and burned Athena’s sacred olive tree which was gift to the people. When the Athenians returned from battle to find the rubble of their sacred temple on their most holy of plateaus, all that remained were the charred roots of Athena’s ancient gifted tree. In a show of grand resilience, the ancient roots sprouted silver-green again and bore fruit, coming now to also symbolize resurrection and rebirth.
Since the beginning of time, olive oil has purified the body, cured illnesses and continues to nourish our bodies and souls. In fact, the siren song of the olive and its oil may perhaps be growing even louder than ever as more and more people around the world come to appreciate its true value. Ancient Greek philosophers and physicians had first discovered the curative properties of olive oil and its dietary wisdom, and like so many other gifts of the ancients, it is firmly and fanatically being ‘rediscovered’ today as modern doctors, dietitians and foodies fervently tout the true benefits of the Mediterranean diet and its firm foundation in olive oil.
Around the 5th century B.C., Greek colonists took the olive tree with them and helped propagate it around the Mediterranean basin – the area which is now home to over 90% of the world’s olive trees. After looking back at the history of olive oil and the land where its roots are perhaps more intertwined than anywhere else on our precious planet, we receive a true glimpse of the incredible secrets this golden fruit holds.
Click below to try some amazing Greek recipes featuring Athena olive oil courtesy of
Chef Maria Loi, International Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy