To this day, there is an aura that surrounds olive oil – an aura that is a common trait of all the diverse cultures that make up what we can call the Mediterranean civilisation. It is worth remembering that the olive is more than just a symbol of life and hope, of a new beginning for the human race, as embodied by the olive branch carried in the dove’s beak to Noah. A long time before Noah, Adam – realising, at the age of 930, that his demise was not far off – asked God for the oil of mercy, which had been promised to him when he was being banished from the Garden of Eden. The oil served as the connection between heaven and earth, an icon of the alliance between the Lord and his favoured creation. An angel delivered to Adam’s son, Seth, the seeds of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which he proceeded to scatter on his father’s tomb on Mount Tabor. The seeds produced three trees: one cypress, one cedar and one olive.

The olive features prominently not only in the Bible but also in Greek mythology. The olive is the gift that Athena gave to the Athenians in an attempt to convince Zeus to name the city after her rather than after her rival, Poseidon, who gifted a horse to Zeus to protect the city. But Zeus preferred Athena’s offering of an olive tree, which he considered a gift of peace rather than war. Then there was Aristaeus, son of Zeus and Cyrene, and himself a demi-god and wandering shepherd, who taught people across the Mediterranean how to press olives to produce olive oil. The Phoenicians went on to make olive oil one of the most widespread and lucrative trades of the ancient world. Many olive trees were considered sacred: Demeter’s olive trees, which can be seen growing on the flat plains of Eleusina, are intertwined with the complex ritual of the Eleusian Mysteries; the olive tree under which Leto gave birth to Apollo and Diana is also sacred, as of course is the Olympic olive, laurels of which are used to crown the Olympic champions. But what is perhaps most important of all is the fact the this sacred side did not prevent the olive tree from becoming one of the cornerstones of Greek civilisation – a product used throughout everyday life as an ointment, at the gymnasium and at the public baths. It was considered indispensable for warming the muscles and preventing accidents. After battles, the contenders would use a strigil to remove sand, oil and sweat, and everyone would take their ampule of oil to the baths. The Greeks also used oil for their nightlights, doing so sparingly at first since life was limited to the period between sunrise and sunset, but later, during the Alexandrine period, the use of oil lamps became commonplace.

Oil and food
And then, of course, there was the part that olive oil had to play in the Greeks’ diet. Honey, olive oil and sesame flour pancakes were on sale on every street corner. At home, fish was boiled and seasoned with a sauce made from egg yolk, leeks, cheese, garlic and olive oil. White sauce, made with vinegar, leeks, salt and oil, was another staple. During wartime, the soldier’s would knead flour and oil into uncooked balls that they could eat on the march and before going into battle. But it was actually the Romans who orchestrated the trading of olive oil on a large scale, thanks to their investments in so-called ‘oil ships’, which would sail from port to port around the Mediterranean. Plutarch wrote that Caesar’s triumph in Africa would ensure three million litres of oil per year, while Columella declared the olive to be the very finest of all plants. Rome even played host to the arca olearia, an ancient form of ‘stock exchange’ for olive oil and a place where merchants and buyers would meet up to do deals. All of the great writers, from Horace to Virgil, Cato and Varro, waxed eloquently in their works about the cultivation of olives. While they may not have had the scientific expertise of someone like Columella, these writers would often propose techniques, based on their own direct experiences, that in their divergence from accepted practice would serve as a showcase for each writer’s originality. Five types of olive oil were produced in ancient Rome. One type was made from light-coloured olives, another from the type of olives that start out green and then turn black, another from ripe olives, yet another from olives that have already fallen off the tree and – last and most certainly least – one from worm-eaten olives, which was given to the slaves. In short, olives were used just about everywhere, especially for medicinal purposes and for cooking. In the kitchen, olive oil was used to make sauces, pesto and hors d’oeuvres, and was also a crucial component in an array of different dishes listed in great detail by Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder. With the eclipsing of the Empire and the Barbarian invasions came a decline in the fortunes of the olive tree – in Italy, it disappeared almost entirely, being kept alive only in a few provinces. In a time when money was exceptionally tight, the cost of cultivation and the long periods required to achieve sufficient yield were instrumental in diminishing its popularity. The fragile olive tree is all too easily attacked by infestations and damaged by frosts, and so only the most powerful monasteries continued to grow it. Indeed, it is said that it was the Benedictines who introduced the olive to the Liguria region. It came back into vogue after the year 1000, when agragrian contracts started to be drafted and smallholdings were introduced, which gave farmers the time and money required to invest in olive groves. When Italy was governed as a collection of communes, oil imports were reduced and the export of oil began in earnest. In the 13th century, a Venetian named Voltani was the leading trader at the oil markets in Byzantium, Corinth and Thebes, and his empire stretched as far as Romania. Venice developed a form of monopolistic control over olive oil throughout the eastern Mediterranean, whereas Genoa traded with the markets of Spain, Africa and Provence. However, at this time, the use of olive oil as an ingredient and condiment was reserved for the rich and those not involved in manual work. The urban and rural poor were forced to use lard, and there was a clear rich/poor division as far as oil and pork fat were concerned. The exception to prove this rule was Puglia, where the farmers and other paupers were permitted to use oil freely.

The olive in Europe
When war tore apart 16th-century Europe, only to be followed by the plagues of the 17th century, the cultivation of olives underwent another decline, surviving only in Tuscany and Sardinia. Grand Duke Cosimo I was, amongst other things, an agronomist, and he distributed land to the heads of the families in the rural villages. On Sardinia, it was the Spanish Viceroy, Juan Vivas, who brought over fifty olive farmers from Majorca and assigned 10 students to each of them. This explains how the olive made a comeback in the north-western part of the island. In the 18th century, European demand for olive oil went through the roof, with markets being created and consolidated in Belgium, France and Britain, and Italian oil even found its way to Catherine I of Russia, to whom Puglian intellectual Giovanni Presta sent an olivewood casket containing all of the most prized varieties of Italian oil. A dreadful snow storm in 1709 destroyed the olive groves in Tuscany. The alternation of the scirocco and tramontana winds from the south-east and the north dried out the trees, snapping the branches and uprooting the trunks. The olive returned to Tuscany only after the Georgophile Academy, in 1753, launched a contest called “Decoration, richness and amenity of the hillside” – to find the tree that was most useful to the country. It was an observer from beyond the Alps, Baron de Montesquieu, who correctly identified the new promised land for oil: Genoa. In 1782, he wrote that “since the Genoese have lost some of their wealth to Vienna, Venice, Spain and France, they have elected to invest in the clearing of mountainsides in order to plant olives, and olive oil production has increased here markedly over the past two decades”. The written records back up this claim: by 1775, olive oil made up a full 71% of the total agricultural production of Oneglia, a typical Ligurian town.

Large-scale production
The Picholini brothers of Provence were the first to implement industrial-scale production of olive oil. They went so far as to invent a technique to remove the bitterness from the olives using a preparation of olive shoots, calcium hydroxide and green oak ashes. Even the Papal States encouraged the cultivation of olives: in 1830, Pius VIII promised the equivalent of a day’s wages to those who planted and trained an olive tree for 18 months. In a few short years, the Umbria region – at the time heavily wooded and mostly a wilderness – became the area of choice for the production of olive oil. However, even Umbria could not compete with the intensive cultivation going on in the Liguria region, home to the true capital of Italian oil, Porto Maurizio, which is now part of Imperia. There, the olive groves covered 40% of the impervious soil. Since then, olive oil production has experience several challenging periods. For a long time, it lacked the support of a suitable sales force and production in general, and particularly in Liguria, suffered badly from a gradual reduction in export volumes, especially after the break with the French empire. However, the market eventually picked up again, and by the end of the 19th century, olives were being cultivated in 67 out of the 97 Italian provinces. Giovanni Pascoli dedicated an anthem to olive cultivation in Italy, which was published in Riviera Ligure in 1901, complete with illustrations by Plinio Nomellini.

A great deal has changed since Aristaeus first taught the Phoenicians how to use olive oil, yet it remains the most evocative symbol of the Mediterranean civilisation, even more so than the sea and wine.

Taken from: Imbottigliamento (April 2005)

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