The History of Olive Oil

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Podcast Transcript

Somewhere in your kitchen, you might have a bottle of olive oil. When you made that purchase you probably didn’t think twice about it, but believe it or not, olive oil used to be one of the most important products in the world. 

While today it is almost exclusively used for cooking, in the past it had a wide variety of uses, which is what made it so valuable. 

The olive oil you consume today is very similar to the product consumed thousands of years ago. In some cases, literally so. 

Learn more about olive oil and how important it was and is to the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

For most people, olive oil is just one of many options of cooking oil you can buy at the store, and olives are just something to garnish a martini or a bloody mary. 

If all the olives in the world disappeared tomorrow, it would be a bad thing, but the world would not end.

However, at one time, olives were really a huge deal. They were on a par with wheat as being the most important product in the ancient Mediterranean and olive oil had a wide variety of uses throughout the economy. 

The scientific name for olives is Olea europaea, or the European Olive. This is actually a misnomer because olives were and are grown all around the Mediterranean including in North Africa and the Middle East. 

Olives are the fruit of the olive tree. We don’t usually think of them as a fruit as they aren’t sweet, but they are most definitely a fruit. Likewise, that makes olive oil a fruit juice. 

If you ever want to be really clever, asked someone if they’d like some fruit juice, and then give them some olive oil. Hilarity will ensue….

Researchers aren’t sure exactly where the olive tree originated, but it was definitely somewhere around the Mediterranean. There is evidence of olives dating back 100,000 years in modern-day Morocco along the Atlantic coast. There are some theories that it may have originated in Persia or Mesopotamia, some that came from Syria, and some have even speculated that it might have originated in sub-Saharan Africa. 

We definitely know that olives were present in the eastern Mediterranean at least 19,000 years ago, and there is evidence of the domestication of olive trees by the Minoan Civilization on the island of Crete 5000 years ago. 

The first evidence of the production of olive oil comes from near the Sea of Galilee about 8,000 years ago. 

At least 4,000 years ago, we know that there was an international trade in olive oil as it was imported by the Egyptians and exported by the Greeks and Minoans. 

Olive oil was primarily transported in vessels known as amphorae. Amphorae were clay containers for transporting liquids, almost always olive oil and wine. They are distinctive for their pointed bottoms, they could be put in wooden holders on ships and transported. 

There were literally millions of amphorae in the ancient Mediterranean. There is a hill in Rome called Monte Testaccio which is nothing but a giant pile of broken clay amphorae. It is estimated that it holds the remains of 53 million amphorae. 

The average amphorae held about 20-25 liters of liquid. 

The process of making olive oil is incredible simply. It is about as easy as extracting grape juice from grapes. 

Large stone olive presses were built which had vertical wheels that would roll around crushing the olives. The oil would then drain out of a hole in the middle of the press. 

Further extraction might come from collecting the pulp in bags and pressing again and washing the olives with water. 

This is why olive oil is known as a cold-pressed oil. Other cold-pressed oils include coconut and avocado oil. The majority of cooking oils you will find in a store are not cold-pressed oils. All seed oils like corn, soybean, and canola have to be made in a highly industrialized process, which is why, for the most part, they didn’t exist until the 20th century. 

When the olives were pressed, one ton of olives could create 50 gallons or 200 liters of oil, and 120 gallons or 450 liters of a waste product known as amurca in Latin.

Amurca was a watery residue that both smelled and tasted bad.  Nonetheless, uses were found for it. It was applied to wood as a finishing agent to make the surface harder. It was also applied to leather products for protection. It was used as animal feed. Small amounts were prescribed as medicine. 

It was mixed into the floors so it would make them harder, and it was also used in laundry to repel moths. 

One of the biggest uses was a pesticide. Supposedly it kept away insects, animals, and weeds. 

The other big byproduct was obviously the leftover pulp. The two big uses were as animal feed and as fertilizer. They would just plow it back into the soil. 

As for the oil itself, we know that the Romans had several different categories of oil, which are not that different from the categories used today. 

The highest category was known as Oleum ex albis ulivis. This was the highest quality oil taken from unripe olives. 

The next category was Oleum viride, which came from olives that were just starting to ripen and turn color. 

The third category was Oleum maturum, which came from black, ripened, mature olives. 

The fourth category was Oleum caducum, which was a poor-quality oil that came from olives usually picked off the ground. 

The fifth and lowest quality oil was Oleum cibarium, which came from olives that were slightly rotten or pest ridden. This oil was usually used for non-consumption purposes. 

So, what did people do with olive oil? Well, quite a lot. 

For starters, it was used as a food product. The higher quality oils were used by more wealthy people, but people of all socioeconomic levels consumed a lot of olive oil.

Based on the physical remains of people found in Pompeii, at least 20% of all calories consumed by the average Roman came from olive oil. That averages out to about 20 liters of olive oil per year that was ingested. 

However, its use in cooking probably wasn’t even the biggest use of olive oil. 

It was also used as a source of fuel. Almost all lamps in the ancient Mediterranean would use olive oil. Small oil lamps are one of the most common items found in archeological digs from this region. 

According to the Bible, when the Israelites fled Egypt, they could only use olive oil to light the menorah. 

One of, if not the biggest uses of olive oil in the Roman world was for washing and bathing. 

The Romans didn’t have soap, at least not as we would think of soap. 

What they would often do to clean themselves was rub themselves with olive oil all over. The oil would collect the dirt and grime on the skin. Then they would scrape it off with a hooked object known as a strigil

The olive oil both cleaned and moisturized the skin. Wealthy people would often use specially scented olive oil for this purpose. 

The large public baths located all over the Empire were some of the largest consumers of olive oil for this reason. 

In addition to all of the above uses, olive oil was also used for medicinal purposes and religious ceremonies. 

The lowest category of olive oil would often be used as a lubricant for things like wagon wheels. 

Over time, many of the uses of olive oil were replaced by other products.

Better fuels for lamps were found, soap and detergents were developed which were superior to rubbing oil all yourself, and superior lubricants were discovered. 

While other cooking oils were developed, olive oil still held a place as nothing else could quite replace it. 

Today the global production of olive oil is approximately 3.2 million metric tons with a value of $16 billion dollars per year.. The largest olive oil producing country, by far, is Spain, which produces 1.1 million metric tons of olive oil annually.  Of the olive oil production in Spain, 75% of that is produced in Andalucía. 

The next largest olive oil producing countries are Italy, Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, and Portugal. 

Just as olive oil production is centered around the Mediterranean, so too is olive oil consumption. 

The largest olive oil consuming country, by a wide margin, is the tiny nation of San Marino which consumes 24 liters of olive oil per year. This is on a par with an average Roman 2000 years ago. 

Greece, Italy, and Spain consumed about 14 liters per year per capita, and Portugal, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon consume about 8 liters per year per person. 

The governing organization for olive production is The International Olive Council or IOC. 

They create the current standards for different grades of olive oil. They have four different grades of olive oil, some of which you are probably familiar with. 

The highest grade is Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Extra virgin olive oil must be mechanically cold-pressed, with no chemicals used for extraction. It also must have less than 0.8% free acidity, which is defined as the grams of free oleic acid in 100 grams of oil.

The next grade is virgin olive oil. This is the same as extra virgin, except the free acidity can be as high as 2%. 

Below that is refined olive oil, which has been physically or chemically filtered. 

The lowest grade is pomace oil. This is oil that comes after the first press to capture the remaining 5 to 8 percent of oil remaining in the pulp. 

There has been a huge problem in the olive oil industry in the last several years. There has been a rash of fake olive oil which consists mostly of cheap seed oils like canola oil, with added dyes.  One of the causes for this is that the Italian mafia has gotten involved with the distribution of olive oil. 

Of special note, is one country that is not part of The International Olive Council: the United States. The Department of Agriculture does have grades very similar to the IOC’s, but the grades are not mandatory. Until recently, the FDA didn’t even bother testing olive oil in the US for counterfeit oils.

So, if you buy extra virgin olive oil, you may have to do more research into the product than you otherwise might. 

Way back in the intro, I mentioned that olive oil production was very similar today as it was 2,000 years ago, and in some cases literally so. 

What I meant when I said “literally”, is that olive trees live for a really long time. The oldest olive trees are around 3,000 years old. 

There are olive trees out there that were around during the Roman Empire, and they are still producing olives. In Spain, there are trees they call millenary trees which are at least 1000 years old. There are thousands of them in the country. 

Some of the most expensive olive oils in the world come from these millenary trees because the olives have to be picked by hand, not via mechanical means. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that olive oil has a community of enthusiasts surrounding it, just like wine does. There are places that do olive oil tastings, olive oil competitions, and there are even certified olive oil sommeliers. Just like with wine, there are olive varietals 

So the next time you dip some bread in olive oil or pour some into a pan, take a moment to appreciate that you are taking part in a tradition that began at least 8,000 years ago. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener LillyC87 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

The best!

So glad I found your podcast! I learned of EED from Moxie Labouches’ “Your Brain On Facts”. I decided to give it a go and within 3 months, I had listened to every episode. Too many favorite episodes to choose just one! I listen with my kids too, thank you for keeping it as clean as the topics allow :)

Hope your sleep schedule is better now than it was at first, and you aren’t staying up all night to bring us this amazing work :)

Thanks, LillyC! I hope your kids enjoy the show as much as you do. I’ve toyed with the idea of adding a daily email that corresponds to each episode that would provide a short quiz to test retention of what they learned on the show.  I don’t know how much demand there would be for it.

As for my sleep schedule, I’m literally recording this at 5 am, so no, my sleep schedule is still messed up. I’m considering just moving to Hawaii. If I did that, I wouldn’t have to adjust my sleep schedule at all, because I’m already on Hawaii time. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.