Oil, one of the products we are most familiar
with, can be traced back to ancient times.
The olive tree gave us one of the most precious ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine: extra virgin olive oil and made its first, most important appearance during the magical era of Greek mythology.
According to ancient myth, Zeus, wanting to give Athens and the ancient region of Attica a sovereign, decided to set the gods a contest. The sovereignty would be awarded for the most useful gift. Two contenders reached the finals, Athena, who brought Zeus an olive tree and Poseidon, who turned up with a white horse. The prize was given to Athena, carrying the olive, considered a symbol of peace rather than the horse, which was considered a symbol of war.
Not long after, the olive was portrayed as a fruit of God. In fact, both the Old and New Testament are testimony to this: olive branches were waved by Jesus' followers in his presence as a manifestation and symbol of honour and welcoming.
Originating in the East, in the Minoic age the olive found
fertile terrain in Crete. It was on this island
that they began to stockpile it, in order to ensure adequate stocks
and attempt exportation.
Reporting of the history and customs of Greece shows how olive oil was actually used. It featured as an ingredient in culinary preparation and also became a valuable ointment to be used for keeping the body in perfect shape (body oil, moisturiser, etc).
The Romans gave oil another value: as a
It was no coincidence that under the Romans development in cultivating the olive was given new meaning; so much so, in fact, that the need grew for some kind of classification. This product, suited to many different uses, was divided into 5 different types. This idea also had commercial implications. The market showed interest and new "professional" figures emerged: salesmen. Commercialisation of the product was rationalised and regimented by a kind of stock exchange, where buying and selling prices could be negotiated.
Oil, along with its life-giver the olive tree, has always shared an unbreakable bond with the history of humanity. This precious product has, just like the history of humanity, been through dark ages (during the centuries following the Roman Empire it was simply relegated to the care of some of the bigger monasteries), and "golden" ages (after farmers were guaranteed improved contractual procedures in the Middle Ages).
During the 14th century, two schools of thought emerged regarding condiments. On the one hand the peoples of Northern Europe declared the supremacy of animal fats; won over by the growth of pig-farming there, (the pig being an animal from which all daily nourishment could be derived). On the other hand, in the south and particularly in Italy, olive oil became the most natural condiment for every kind of dish.
In the 18th century, true cataloguing of the
olive tree and its fruits took place, with varieties being
classified according to their geographical origin. Moreover, thanks
to a continuously growing economy, incentives were given for the
cultivation of the olive and its fame soon spread, reaching the
majority of countries in Europe.
The Italian product became well known and it was again in the 18th century that Liguria and Tuscany further defined their olive-growing vocation, extending cultivation to achieve record figures.
During the 19th century, olive groves invaded Umbria, destined to become one of the principle long-term olive oil producers.
And so to the 20th century. During the post-war and post-boom decades, oil was no longer regarded as being nutritionally rich. Considered a "poor" ingredient, it became widely replaced by "richer animal fats".
Nowadays, the nutrition value of olive oil has
been notably reappraised. Credit must be given to the widespread
success of Mediterranean cuisine, characterised above all by the
presence of olive oil.
This is how olive oil became an Italian phenomenon and one that has achieved success all over the world.