"Peace with its Leaves and
Joy with its Golden Oil":
The History of Olives & Olive Oil
Olives & Olive Oil Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, examines the remarkable history of an ingredient that is now a staple in almost every household. Olive oil has long been revered, but often as a fuel and for religious purposes as much as for food. This is a fun episode that will show where olives and olive oil first originated and how olive oil has become part of our everyday life.
Find out more about the fascinating history of olives and olive oil, and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE
“PEACE WITH ITS LEAVES AND JOY WITH ITS GOLDEN OIL”:
THE HISTORY OF OLIVES & OLIVE OIL
Why did the tomato blush?
I don’t know. Why did the tomato blush?
Because it saw the salad dressing.
See? Salad dressing, ‘cause we’re gonna talk about olive oil. See? Salad dressing. That’s as good as it’s gonna get and this is the first episode. So there you go.
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Right. Shall we start?
And, welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And on this week’s episode, we are going to be looking at two things, although it would actually be fair to say that one of these would not exist without the other. They are ingredients that have a history stretching back almost as far as human communities were formed, and ingredients that have a significance that is religious & sacred, military, and medical as well as culinary.
They are ingredients that are mentioned in the very first cookbook we know of written in the English language – “The Forme of Cury” – and ingredients that have spread from their point of origin, in an area between modern day Syria and Turkey, across the Mediterranean and from there to places such as Australia, China, across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Americas. They are, according to Alan Davidson’s “The Oxford Companion to Food,”
“the most extensively cultivated temperate fruit crop in the world.”
From 2012 to about 2020, the global consumption of one of these ingredients alone is nearly 3 million tons. And, in the United States, consumption of one of these ingredients went up 250% in the last 25 years, while the Asia Pacific region is expected to grow its consumption levels to over 4% by 2025, making that region the fastest growing consumer of it.
Yes, folks. Have you guessed it yet? This week, we are going to be talking about the history of olives and their ubiquitous partner, olive oil.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep listening.
Originally, this episode was going to be solely about olive oil. However, as I did my research, I realized that even though olive oil takes up about 90% of the use of olive production, it would be silly to start talking about one thing without talking about the other. If that makes sense.
So, let’s start with the olives themselves.
Our friends at Merriam-Webster define olives as,
“a Mediterranean evergreen tree (Olea europaea of the family Oleaceae, the olive family) cultivated for its drupaceous fruit that is an important food and source of oil.”
The English term, “olive,” is derived from the Greek word, “elaia,” and the Roman Latin, “oliva,” which of course led to the word “olive” we use today. It also, of course, refers to the fruit the tree bears as well as the tree itself. Meanwhile, the Arabic word, “Zaytun” – olives, in English – is derived from the Semitic word, “Zeit,” which was used in Syria, and then moved to Egypt and the Arab world.
The fruit is a drupe fruit. That is, a fruit that has a single seed inside a fleshy exterior. Stop talking about fleshy exteriors everyone. Other examples of drupe fruits would include cherries and peaches.
As for olive oil, that is defined as,
“a pale yellow to yellowish-green nondrying oil that is obtained from olives, is high in monounsaturated fat, and is used chiefly as a salad oil or in cooking.”
As I mentioned above, the olive plant, “Olea europaea,” and its fruit, are first thought to have originated in an area that lays between what is now Syria and Turkey. This was discovered by the analysis of archeological and scientific evidence, which also showed that the growth of olives moved from the origin point to the rest of the Mediterranean.
Originally, it would have been wild olives but was soon being cultivated in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, etcetera, and then began to move down to what is now Italy and Spain. Archeological excavations at the Neolithic site of Kfar Samir, on what was the coast of ancient Israel, found evidence of simple olive presses. And scientists carbon-dated an olive stone found in Spain to 6000 years BCE.
By around the third millennium BCE, it becomes clear that not only were olives being cultivated widely, but that they had become an important part of the economies of the countries in which there were produced. And rhis was mainly because of the oil that was produced. Raw olives contain a bitter compound called, oleuropein, which makes them just about inedible if they are eaten fresh from the tree. As food writer, Harold McGee, put it in his book, “On Food and Cooking,”
“Olives are also unusual among our commonly eaten fruits for being extremely unpalatable!”
Producing oil in these original countries was much more successful. So great, in fact, that they began to produce an excess enough to begin a lucrative export of their product to ancient Greece and Egypt. By the late Bronze age, the Greeks were soon producing olive oil for themselves, initially on the islands of Crete and Cyprus and, with the expansion of the Hellenistic empire, we begin to see the spread of olive and olive oil production across the Mediterranean.
And, once the ancient Romans got involved, probably by encountering olives in Tripoli, Tunisia or the island of Sicily, the spread of olive oil production found itself moving to more countries along the Mediterranean.
Notably, it was also the Romans who likely developed a rapid process of curing the olives themselves so they could be fit for the table. People had cured olives before by covering them in salt or brine. However, this process could take months. The Romans found that by adding lye, which is an alkaline solution like sodium hydroxide taken from wood ashes, to the brine, the process of curing took a matter of hours, not months.
Although the technology of making olive oil may have improved over time, the process of making it in more ancient times is not so terribly far removed from what you might see today. The olives were harvested and then crushed. Initially, this was done by hand, or rather, I should say, by foot, by people wearing wooden sandals, and later, by using a mortar and pestle then later, stone rollers, and then even later, presses. The resulting olive sludge, for want of a better word, was pressed to remove oil. The residue was then mixed with water, where the oil would float to the top, and which would then be drained or ladled.
Olive oil became a hugely important part of each culture, not just monetarily, but also to society in general. In ancient Greece, the olive trees were considered sacred. This stems from a mythological tale in which Athena, the goddess of war, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, held a contest to see which one of them would give their name to the capital of Attica. Poseidon struck a rock with his spear, which created a spring of water, or horse, depending on the storyteller. While Athena struck a rock with her spear and created the first olive tree. Athena won the day and the capital of Attica became the city of Athens in her honor.
While olive oil is obviously now known as a food source, it was very expensive and tended to be only consumed by the very wealthy. Primarily, in the ancient world, we see olive oil being used as fuel for lamps, which was often considered its greatest value. We also see it being used as medicinal ointments, in cosmetics and also in religious ceremonies and rituals.
Olive oil was used as the fuel of the torch of the original ancient Greek Olympic games, and the athletes at these games even massaged themselves with olive oil before competition, particularly in wrestling to make it harder for their opponents to grab them. If they were fortunate enough to be victorious, they would be bestowed with a crown made of olive leaves, harvested from a sacred garden. And in the 4th century BCE, the winner of the running race called, the stadion, at the Panathenaic Games received olive oil as a prize.
A lot of the information we have about olive oil comes from references to them in ancient literature and art. In ancient Egypt, we find in records made during the reign of Ramses II, who lived from about 1279 to 1212 or 1213 BCE, mentions of olive oil being donated to light the temples of the Sun God, Ra. And, illustrations of jars of olive oil are also found both on the walls in his tomb, and those of Tutankhamen, who reigned in 1325 BCE.
In ancient Greece, the famed physician, Hippocrates, often given the honor as “the Father of Medicine,” referred to olive oil as,
“The Great Healer.”
Whereas, in his work, “The Odyssey,” Homer describes olive oil in Book 23, line 155 as,
However, what is interesting is that all of these mentions are in reference to the use of oil in hygiene and ritual than for being part of a diet. For example, in “The Odyssey,” Book 17, Lines 85 to 95, he discusses being anointed with oil BEFORE sitting down to eat, rather than including oil in the meal.
“The maids wip’d them and rubb’d them o’er with oil,
And woollen cloaks and tunics round them threw:
Then coming forth they sat them down on seats;
A servant water bare in golden ewer,
And o’er a silver basin pour’d it forth,
To wash their hands, and polish’d tables set:
Before them then the housekeeper plac’d bread;
With many viands from her present store;
His mother near the doors sat facing him,
On couch reclining, spinning worsted threads;
They put their hands unto the cook’d meats then.”
We see a similar use of olive oil in the Bible, where it mentions the tree itself about 25 times and mentions the oil about 160 times. These appear in both the Old and the New testaments. For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy 28:40, punishment may take the form of taking away one’s access to olive oil.
“You will have olive trees throughout all your country, but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off.”
This seems like one of God’s favorite punishment and similar threats are offered in Micah 6:15 and Jeremiah 11:16.
In the New Testament, the use of olive oil is used primarily for the purpose of anointing, particularly, those who might be sick. For example, in the Epistle of James 5:14,
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
In fact, it is worth noting that the term used in the Bible, “The Messiah,” literally means “the anointed one.” While we may not be 100% certain that olive oil was used in every occasion, it was such a fundamental part of the life of Israel, it would be strange to think about it being omitted in this most sacred of occasions.
The Romans too made olive oil a central part of their culture. Such was the capacity of this vast empire to use olive oil, that it became a central part of the Roman economy. It was said that at its height, Rome was trading 23 million kilograms – or over 50 million pounds – of oil a year. And, one excavation of an olive oil factory in Libya discovered 17 presses capable of producing 100,000 liters a year.
The fact that this operation can be viewed as a “factory” shows the requirements needed to keep Rome supplied. To help achieve this, they began to develop a number of strategies. These included improved farming techniques.
In his book, “De Agricultura” or “On Agriculture,” Cato the Elder gives his advice:
“In heavy, warm soil plant olives — those for pickling, the long variety, the Sallentine, the orcites, the posea, the Sergian, the Colminian, the waxy-white; choose especially the varieties which are commonly agreed to be the best for these districts. Plant this variety of olives at intervals of twenty-five or thirty feet. Land which is suitable for olive planting is that which faces the west and is exposed to the sun; no other will be good. Plant the Licinian olive in colder and thinner soil. If you plant it in heavy or warm soil the yield will be worthless, the tree will exhaust itself in bearing, and a reddish scale will injure it.”
As well as looking to maximize their crop, the Romans also developed new mechanical methods of producing olive oils. Creating machines with names such as, the “trapetum,” the “torcular” and the “tudicula,” which used levers and counterweights and whose aim was to squeeze as much oil as possible from the olives.
The empire also expanded olive cultivation even in to places where growing them was not optimal. It also developed complex networks of oil trading across its territories and with its trading neighbors.
In book 15 of his work, “The Natural History,” Pliny the Elder gives not only farming advice, but also advice on where to find the best olives. Ever the booster for his home town, the best olives, of course come from Italy itself. He says,
“Italy holds the highest rank among all countries, and more particularly the territory of Venafrum, that part of it in especial which produces the Licinian oil; the qualities of which have conferred upon the Licinian olive the very highest renown.”
He does go on to mention that very good oils come from Baetica, the region that is now Andalucía in Spain – just as well, as that is where my favorite olive oils come from – although Pliny is rather dismissive of the oils from Africa, saying
“the soil of which is better adapted for grain.”
The Romans also began to use their might to help keep a constant flow of olive oil into the city. As part of penalties from those they had conquered, fines and taxes were levied in olive oil. For example, in the 1st century BCE, after Julius Caesar had defeated Pompey during a bloody civil war, he imposed heavy taxes on those cities that had supported his rival – including a colossal fine on the North African city of Lepcis Magna – of three million pounds of olive oil.
Now, the majority of this oil would have been essential primarily to fuel the lanterns that lit the eternal city. However, we also begin to see an increase in the consumption of olives and olive oil in food. It was Rome I mentioned above that was likely the first culture to preserve olives as a whole fruit using brine. There is a terrific dip that is well worth trying to recreate called, “Epityrum,” which is an olive salad. In the book, “De Agricultura,” Cato gives a recipe for it.
“This is the recipe for olive salad (epityrum): Select some white, black and mottled olives and stone them. Mix and cut them up. Add a dressing of oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin, fennel, rue and mint. Mix well in an earthen ware dish, and serve with oil.”
[Inhales] Sounds rather good.
We also see mentions of olives and olive oil in that most noted of Roman cookbooks, “De Re Coquinaria,” by Apicius, including a method of preserving olives at home for you to produce your own oil.
“To keep olives, fresh from the tree, in a manner enabling you to make oil from them any time you desire just place them (in brine). Having been kept thus for some time the olives may be used as if they had just come off the tree fresh if you desire to make green oil of them.”
When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 CE, the Empire got divvied up into different kingdoms that fought with each other, and trade within the former empire almost disappeared and the cultivation of olives regressed. This meant that olives and olive oil no longer spread throughout the vast former empire.
Olive cultivation waned in Italy, France, and a little bit in Spain. Despite that, olive oil usage in Spain remained strong.
Also, in the Arabic and North African world, it seemed that olive oil continued to be used. Author Ejaz Naqvi notes that the olive is revered in Islam, and that the Quran mentions the tree and its oil at least seven times. Including chapter 24, verse 35, which says,
“God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche wherein is a lamp: the lamp is in a crystal, and the crystal shining as if a pearl-like radiant star, lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west. The oil almost gives light of itself though no fire touches it.”
Indeed, a 10th century Iraqi book called, “Kitāb al-Tabīkh,” which we briefly talked about during our episode on the History of Cookbooks, has olive oil in many of the recipes.
Olives and olive oil usage likely resurged in Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries, and in the 17th century in France. Marseille, France – that rugged Southern French port founded by the Greeks in 600 BCE and was previously known as Masilia – became a critical commercial hub for olive oil. In fact, these days, in addition to actual olive oil, Marseille is also known for savon de Marseille, or soap of Marseille that uses olive oil.
I’m going to break off here to tell you a story that has become part of urban culture in my home country of Great Britain. There’s a reason for this, I promise you. The story involves one of the true greats of British – indeed world food writing – Elizabeth David. Well, David and her book “A Book of Mediterranean Food,” which was first published in 1950. This book is considered the book that began to drag Britain out of its post-war food malaise that gave it the reputation under which it now rather unfairly lingers. Its mentions of her travels in France and Italy brought a vivid amount of color to what was definitely a very drab culinary scene still blighted with rationing. One of the most often told elements of this story is that she was responsible for reintroducing the British kitchen to olive oil at a time, we are assured, it was only available when purchased from the pharmacy. It is, as I said, an urban myth, but a good example of how olive oil was representative of the Mediterranean diet.
The truth is that while olive oil was not a key part of the British diet, the population – particularly, the wealthy – were very far from being unaware of it.
It often surprises people when I tell them that the first mention of olive oil in written English goes all the way back to 1390, and the publication of what is the first English cookbook, “The Forme of Cury.” This is a book compiled by the master cooks in the court of King Richard the II. Olive oil is mentioned several times and is usually introduced with lard as a potential substitute for butter. So I think that it had to be on hand in at least the great households.
However, it would be fair to say that it was hardly an essential. In 1588, when Phillip II of Spain decided to launch the ill-fated Spanish Armada against England, the 130 ships included both fighting vessels and storage vessels with goods the Spanish would need when the invasion was successful. Among the goods carried were 6,000 quintals or about 1,322,744 pounds of bacon, 3,433 quintals or about 756,846.9 pounds of cheese, let’s be specific, 5,000 pairs of shoes and obviously doubting they would find an access as easy as they might in Spain, 11,398 arrobas or about 48,562 gallons of olive oil.
Yeah, wow. And 5,000 pairs of shoes so they obviously didn’t think the British could make shoes either.
In the Georgian period of the late 18th and early 19th century, olive oil was sizeable import into the growing number of ports, not just in and around London, but also in other major port towns such as Bristol.And, in a popular guide to food written in 1746 by Thomas Moffett entitled, “Health’s Improvement, or Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Foods Used in This Nation,” we see a description of, and a guidance on, olives by the author.
“Olives, the desired Salad of divine Plato, are an usual Dish at most Mens Tables, tho' none of them grow in England. Wild Olives are better, than those which are set in City Orchards; which the very Birds do know in Italy, more coveting the wilder sort. We have three sorts of them brought into our Country, Spanish Olives, Italian Olives, and Olives of Provence. The first sort is the biggest, but yet the worst, being too yellow, too soft, and too full of Oil: The Italian Olive is almost as big, but more firm of Flesh, and pleasanter through retaining his natural Greenishness. The Provence Olives are less than either, something bitterer also and more leather skin'd, yet better for the Stomach than the Spanish, tho' nothing near the Italian or Bononian Olive in Flesh, Taste or Goodness.”
In the 19th century, we see olive oil being mentioned numerous times in the classic British home reference book, “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.” For example, she says,
“The oil extracted from olives, called olive oil, or salad oil, is, with the continentals, in continual request, more dishes being prepared with than without it, we should imagine. With us, it is principally used in mixing a salad, and when thus employed, it tends to prevent fermentation, and is an antidote against flatulency.”
I think my wife put this in. “And that’s why I use a lot of olive oil, folks.” I deny, totally, that I am a flatulent person. There is no evidence for that.
Likewise, as we move into the 20th century, we see references to olive oil being used in many cookbooks, including those of potentially the greatest chef of them all, Auguste Escoffier. Although, I should point out, although he spent much of his career working in London, he was a Frenchman to the core, and so olive oil would have been very familiar to him. Added to which, and in reference to my point earlier in the episode about the city of Marseilles, his recipe for a stunning sounding Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise is the perfect example and one that contains 1 décilitre or four US cups of olive oil.
It is certainly true that, particularly in the era between World War I and World War II, olive oil use in Britain, as food historian Dr. Annie Gray puts it,
“Seemed to peter out.”
There were also regional elements and class elements that came into play too. Unless people shopped in London, or the South East, it would’ve been harder to get a hold of one. An article on the BBC website points out, it was primarily seen as a middle class staple and the people who bought it subject to parody. That’s all changed in the last 35 to 40 years, and in 2019, Britain imported over 84,000 tons of olive oil.
The Spanish first brought olive trees to the Americas in the 16th century, initially to Colombia and Peru. In 1769, Spanish missionaries brought olive seeds to California to grow them from scratch believing that climate was suitable for cultivation. They grew them in the gardens of the Spanish missions. These olive trees definitely thrived.
Meanwhile, there was also an attempt to grow them on the east coast of the United States. Thomas Jefferson was known to be a fan of olive oil. From 1784 to 1789, he was stationed in Paris. While in France, he spent time in the region of Aix-en-Provence, an area noted for its olive oil, and immediately fell in love with the tree, which he called,
“The most interesting plant in existence.”
And, the fruit as
“The richest gift of heaven.”
He even tried to import the trees to grow in South Carolina. It was not a success probably because it was too humid, but he blamed the failure on the farmers and their apathy towards it. In the end, by 1804, he had given up trying to plant the tree, but made sure to keep his own supply regularly stocked up by importing them by the gallon from Aix en Provence in France.
The first commercially available olive oils in California were released in 1871 by the Camulos Oil Mill in Ventura. Which, by the way, is where we record this episode. Hurrah! However, they found it hard to compete against oils being made from other seeds, and the cheaper imports from Europe. It was really not until the beginning of the 1980s that we begin to see olive oil being recognized as a key flavor provider, and as a potentially healthier source of fats and oils in the US.
In a New York Times article from 1997, feature writer, Florence Fabricant, says,
“Olive oil’s popularity in the United States has grown since the early 1980’s, when demand began to surge, thanks largely to medical reports about its ability to control cholesterol and the emergence of Tuscan food.”
Between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, the sales of olive oil in the United States went up by 100%, and olive oil now represents about 8% of the country’s consumption of fats.
In world terms, however, this puts the USA at a lowly annual consumption of 0.7 liters per capita. Compare that to the world leaders in olive oil consumption per capita, the Greeks, who consume nearly 26 liters of olive oil every year; the Spanish, who consume 15 liters per person per year; and the Italians who consume 13.5 liters per person per year. Not surprising as all of these are countries that have been producing olive oil since ancient Roman times.
Currently, the biggest producer of olive oil is Spain, producing 40% of the world’s supply – and most of that coming from the Andalucía region – the same area praised by Pliny the Elder as producing great olive oils after Italy back in ancient times. In the 2019/2020 season, Spain produced 1,125,300 tons of oil.
But, as I mentioned at the very beginning of the episode, the passion for olive oil is spreading across the globe. According to the International Olive Council, for the 2019/2020 season, olive oil consumption among member countries – mostly those producing olive oils in the EU, the Levant and some North African and South American countries – was 2,204,000 tons, which was a 3.4% rise in usage. And in non-member countries – that’s the rest of us – olive oil consumption was 1,030,000 tons, which was an 11.4% increase in usage.
Personally, I have purchased some of my most enjoyable olives oils in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Croatia, South Africa, Slovenia, and China. I should also give a big mention to those olive oil producers in my home state of California. There are many amazing producers here. However, as it’s my podcast, and I can do what I like, I would like to give a shout out to my good friends at Enzo Olive Oil in Clovis near Fresno in Central California who make some of the very best olive oils I have ever tried. I should note that they haven’t paid me to say that although they have previously given me a few gift bottles, which I truly enjoyed.
And actually, if you are going to ask me what some of the best olive oil I’ve ever tried about, I’m not going to tell you about my travels around the Mediterranean. I’m going to tell you about the time I walked into a shop called, The Embassy Electrical Supply Shop, in London because I saw a sign outside selling olive oil. I was too intrigued to pass that by. I wandered inside and the owner, Mehmet, who has now become a friend, told me that he owned a farm in Turkey and imported olive oil amongst many other Turkish farm specialties from there to sell at the side of his shop. He insisted I take a taste of the oil and it was magnificent. So much so that I wrote an article about it for the Times of London. And we’ll put a link to it. So go online and look up “olive oil,” “Embassy Electrical Supplies” in Islington in London and you can read about some of the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. I should point out that, again, this is not a paid endorsement but I should say that Mehmet did give me a few bottles of his olive oil last time I was in London and I used them very sparingly because I enjoy it so much.
The growth in sales of olive oil has led to two major problems. One, is how to classify oils so that people know what grade of oil they are buying.
The European Union, whose members produce over 67% of the world’s olive oil, has an extremely rigorous system, which was put in place in 1991. According to the EU, there are eight classifications of olive oil – that is, oil made solely from the fruit of the tree – and olive pomace oil – that is, oil extracted from the pomace or the paste that is created after oil is removed from the fruit, where the oil from the pomace is sometimes removed with the help of solvents and other treatments. They are as follows:
“extra-virgin olive oil,
virgin olive oil,
virgin lampante olive oil,
refined olive oil,
olive oil composed of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils,
olive pomace oil,
crude olive-pomace oil, [and]
refined olive pomace oil.”
This is all rather complicated, as most regulations tend to be. However, it should tell us that a great deal of effort is put into grading oil. And, if you want my advice for choosing oil, I would say, buy a great Extra Virgin Olive Oil for dressing salads and finishing dishes, and by a good refined oil in which to cook food.
Now, which brings us to our second problem, and that is, that olive oils are one of, if not the most, adulterated foods in the world.
In a 2016 article in Forbes magazine, the writer claims that nearly 80% of the oils that claim to be “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” from Italy, are neither “Extra Virgin” nor, indeed, from Italy. And, most frighteningly, this includes oils that are sold under some very familiar brand names. This is all the result of what has become known as the “agro mafia,” a mob-like cartel that brings oil in from Syria, Morocco, Turkey, etcetera, and then rebottles it as Italian to sell to foreign markets. Primarily, those in the United States.
Which might sound like a bit of a downer of a way to end this episode, but it does prompt me to suggest that perhaps, we should now begin to think about buying olive oils with the same seriousness that we begin to think about wine.
If at all possible, always try and taste and smell the olive oil you are going to buy. You can do this at most specialist shops, but even some large-scale retailers may often have stations to test a new olive oil product. Try oils from different countries. Each will have its own “terroir” – which is defined by our friends at Merriam-Webster as
“the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.”
And while that definition applies to wines, I think it definitely also applies to olive oils. Based on the climate and environment where the olive grew, each olive oil will have its own tastes, aromas and textures, and each will work with different foods. When you experience the variety that is on offer, you will begin to realize why this ancient fruit and its oils have been regarded as sacred for thousands of years.
And, on that note, I am going to go and enjoy some olive oil in my favorite way: dipping a piece of crusty bread into a small bowl of oil, laced with a crack of black pepper, and maybe a sprinkle of Maldon salt. Perfect.
See you next week folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[pah pah pah pah pah]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: April 26, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.