The origins of the olive tree are about 6000 years old; they came from Levant, what is now as Syria and Lebanon. The first cultivation of the olive tree took place in the Early Minoan times on the island of Crete. From Crete, the first export of olive oil went to mainland Greece, and other countries around the Mediterranean. The olive tree has always played a significant part in the lives and rituals of modern man. A dove brought an olive branch to Noah signalling the end of the great flood, and champions of the Olympic Games received a wreath of olive branches as trophies. Many believed that the Greek Gods were born under the branches of an olive tree. Olive oil holds a sacred place in the rites of the Greek religious life; they use the oil in baptisms and the illumination of churches.
The Greeks hold the olive in high esteem; to signify a good friendship they say,”We ate bread and olives together”. Olive trees grow in the arid soil of the region; however, though olive trees have been a blessing for Greece, in some areas the planting of olive trees has caused damage by erosion and the clearing of natural vegetation. Olive trees do not bear fruit until eight to ten years after planting, so they are an investment for the future. When a child is born into the family in some areas, they plant an olive tree, the tree will grow as the child grows, and when the child is an old woman with children and grand children of her own, the tree will still bear fruit and with careful attention, will do so for hundreds of years afterwards. Today, new strains of olive trees are being planted these bear fruits much earlier, though these trees are not as robust and require constant watering. Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil, due to the quality of the oil, Greece exports over 40% to Italy, who use the oil to improve their own olive oil.
The harvesting of olives is labour intensive, and many companies in Greece allow their workers time of to return to their native villages to help in the yearly harvest of the olives. They shake the branches so the olives fall into large nets placed around the tree. Brine, is used to remove the bitter taste of the olives that are going to be bottled. The rest go to local olive presses, after washing to remove any impurities, grinding stones crush the olives into a paste before going on to the next stage of the process. They transfer the paste onto round mats that are stacked in a hydraulic press that squeezes out the oil. The first pressing produces the superior extra virgin olive oil; further pressings produce olive oil of a lesser quality. The oil then goes into a centrifuge to separate any solids and water from the oil, temperature is important in the production of olive oil. The temperature must be between 16-28 degrees Celsius to prevent deterioration of the oil. This form of cold pressing produces extra virgin olive oil of a superior quality, renowned for its aroma and taste.
The classifying of olive oil is strictly controlled in relation to its quality and method of growth. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the natural juice of cold pressed olive with an acidity of less than 1%. Virgin Olive Oil has an acidity of between 1% and 2%. Olive Oil is purified oil with a small percentage of natural juices from Virgin Olive Oil about 20%-30%, after being purified the acidity must not exceed 1.5%. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, produced in areas where the soil, climatic conditions and type of olive result in the production of oil of exceptional quality, receive a P.D.O (Protected Designation of Origin). This is similar to the classification of French wines, and is subject to strict national and international controls. Olives grown with out the use of any chemicals weed killers, fertilisers etc; receive a verification of Product of Organic Farming. The cultivation, production to storage and packaging of the oil come under the control of the Standards Organisation, who analyse the oil before it receives verification.
Olive oil contains “polyphenols”, an antioxidant that is beneficial in protecting against certain diseases. Hippocrates, reputed to be the father of modern medicine, recommended that drinking the juice of fresh olives helped those afflicted by mental illnesses. Olive oil has been throughout the ages, used to relieve or cure ailments from earache, stomach problems to gynaecological complaints. It known that olive oil is low in non-saturated fats, and beneficial in reducing the cholesterol in the arteries, thus lessening the risk of heart attacks. It also helps in the growth of bones of young children and is a good source of vitamin E for both adults and children alike.
Types of Olives:
Greece is famous for its olives, Kalamata olives from the Peloponnese are probably the most famous. Though try the other types of olives, shopkeepers will often taste the olive before buying.
Kalamata: is a firm olive with a medium-sharp taste.
Thasos : is a favourite with Greeks with its mellow taste.
Amfissa: is an olive with a fleshy texture and subtle sweetness.
Atalanti: is a large olive, with a fleshy texture and a hint of bittersweet fruitiness.
Cracked Green: is a fruity olive, whose flavour improves when, cracked.
Elitses: is an olive with a taste of sweetness.
Ionian Green: is a delicate and mild olive.
Mytilini: is a fully ripe olive with a mellow flavour.
Nafplion: Fresh, is an olive with a nutty flavour.