All About Olive OilFrom Tree To Table
The olive tree
It is said that the olive tree originated from Asia Minor. It belongs to the Olea Europaea species and comes in two varieties: (a) the tame or common olive tree and (b) the wild olive tree.
It is an evergreen, age-long tree. It can reach up to 10 metres in height and its roots penetrate deep into the soil. It grows numerous side branches that extend in all directions, thus helping the tree withstand storms and strong winds.
When young, its bark is smooth and shiny, but as the tree ages, its bark grows darker in hue and becomes ligneous, with cavities. Its leaves are lanciform, opposed and criss-cross. Their upper part is green and shiny, while the lower part is fuzzy.
The tree blooms appear in April and May; they are small in size and of a yellowish hue. Its fruit, i.e. the olive, is small, round and green. As it matures, it grows in size and changes to an oval shape. Its exterior is fleshy and it has a hard stone in the middle.
Greece has olive tree varieties that do not exist in other olive-producing countries, such as the Koroneiki variety, which provides top quality olive oil and is cultivated in Peloponnesus, Crete, Zante and other locations.
The Mediterranean of Olive trees
Try to imagine the natural landscape of the coastal areas of the Mediterranean basin many thousand years ago. Let us say 50,000 or 60,000 years ago…
This is not a random number, as that is the age of the oldest olive tree, samples of which were found on the island of Santorini. The age of the olive tree was determined through laboratory testing, following its discovery by Mr. Evangelos Velitzelos , Professor of Paleobotany at the University of Athens, according to whom:
“plant fossils of rare phyto-geographical importance were collected from the walls of the Santorini caldera, such as fossilized olive tree leaves – quite rare for the Mediterranean – that are 50,000 to 60,000 years in age…”
In all likelihood, this is a type of “ancestor” of the contemporary olive tree. Apparently, it did not only grow on the island of Santorini, but covered large expanses of lowlands, coastal areas and semi-mountainous areas of the entire Mediterranean basin (according to other findings and samples, such as leaves, pollen, stones, etc.). In fact, the soil and climate conditions of coastal Mediterranean areas (long sunshine duration, mild winters, cool summers, mountainous and hilly topography, naturally fertile soil) are such that justify the now broadly accepted view that the Mediterranean is the birthplace of the olive tree. In fact, such is the interconnection between the Mediterranean and olive trees that many consider the presence of olive trees as a criterion for its demarcation.
Olive groves that shape the landscape and the environment
Today, the endless olive groves of the Mediterranean basin, estimated to contain over 750 million trees, create wonderful forests and agricultural landscapes. Endless expanses with their renowned silver-green colour, small groups of olive trees, cultivated or not, that often co-exist with remarkable drystone walls – terraces that dominate the semi-mountainous and mountainous rural landscape of the Mediterranean and depict the effort made by numerous generations to retain the scarce soil of their land.
Thus, the olive groves of the Mediterranean remind us of ancient locations. This should not be strange, as the olive tree has been cultivated in practically the same way for thousands of years! With minimal requirements for cultivation, the exploitation of the olive tree is a farming activity that makes a positive contribution to the environment.
Olive groves, particularly traditional ones, provide shelter, food and protection to numerous species of microorganisms, small and large animals, birds and species of flora, thus contributing to the preservation of biodiversity. They also contribute greatly towards preventing erosion in areas where desertification can be intense and towards enriching aquifers by retaining rainwater.
Olive groves in Greece
Of course, all the above vary from region to region within the Mediterranean. In Greece, due to the diverse terrain and the practice of small cultivation lots, there are numerous small farm holdings and, consequently, small olive groves. These groves do not require modern cultivating techniques and the use of advanced technologies or standardized processes to provide yields. Cultivation and harvesting take place through manual labour, with the help of all members of the family that owns each grove, while olive oil production takes place at the local olive oil mill, which covers the needs of geographically small areas.
Thus, throughout Greece and on the island of Crete, in particular, where our Company’s olive oil is produced, olives and olive oil are products of traditional cultivation, which makes the difference at the level of olive oil quality. After all, the small holdings and the mountainous – semi-mountainous landscape do not allow extensive use of mechanical equipment in the cultivation and harvesting of olives.
Now, let us “travel” to Crete and get to know the birthplace of our olive oil.
The most popular tree on Crete
We are on the island of Crete, a place one might describe as synonymous with the olive tree. Certain figures are astonishing:
- Olive trees cover ¼ of the total area of the island and olive groves account for approximately 65% of its agricultural land.
- There are over 35 million olive trees on the island. * Over 95,000 farming families are involved in the cultivation of olive trees.
- A four-member family consumes approximately 100 kilograms of olive oil per year!
The truth is that no matter where you stand, you can either see extensive olive groves, or isolated – or small groups of – olive trees. In recent years, even in the cities, these trees, which were once associated with rural areas and agriculture, now have a place of honour, as they adorn even the most luxurious hotels and houses.
What is it that has made the olive tree so popular? The value it has been given, particularly in recent years, is mainly due to the global recognition of the high nutritional value of its products and olive oil, in particular.
The 7-country study
According to studies conducted by renowned international institutes and foundations, the best-known being the “7-country study”, it was proven that the residents of Crete enjoy higher levels of good health than anyone else, a fact that is due to their diet – and the Cretan diet, in turn, is based on olive oil. Actually, these findings amount to nothing more than what the people of Crete knew thousands of years ago. From the moment they arrived on the island, as well as throughout the Mediterranean, humans used the olive tree products to survive. 8,000 years ago, people of the Neolithic era (6,000 to 3,000 BC) collected the fruit of the wild olive tree (the untamed ancestor of the contemporary olive tree), which, along with other raw fruit, served as the main ingredients of their daily diet. The shift from foraging to more systematic ways of utilizing the olive tree took place approximately 3,000 years later. Thus, in the Bronze Age (3,000 BC), humans started to tame the olive tree, while a millennium later, they began cultivating and exploiting it.
From foragers to producers
And if the olive tree is the trademark of the countries of the Mediterranean basin, its systemized cultivation, a landmark for the evolution of Mediterranean civilization, is geographically identified with the island of Crete.
There are many findings and all indicate that in the era of the famous Minoan civilization, systematic cultivation of the olive tree was one of the main economic activities and gradually led to more complex structures of social organisation. If we were to place findings related to the exploitation and use of the olive tree on a map of the island, we would cover its total area. Travelling through the regions where olive tree cultivation reached its peak provides an excellent picture of the gradual transformation of these regions’ economy from simpler to more complex forms of organisation and survival. At the same time, we experience a unique journey through time to the famous early Minoan civilization.
A relationship that began 8,000 years ago!
Somewhere in the centre of the northern part of Crete, near the city of Rethymnon, lies the famous “Gerani” Cave – an impressive cave of enormous archaeological and paleontological value that was discovered by accident in 1969 through the use of explosives during the construction of the northern road axis of Crete.
The entrance to the cave was suddenly sealed by rocks before the end of the late Neolithic period, trapping three people and numerous stone and bone tools inside. Archaeological research showed that people of those time used olive oil in their food!
In other words, from foraging, i.e. already consuming raw olives in 6,000 BC, they soon shifted to exploiting the fruit, by draining its juices.
Olive cultivation in Minoan times
However, the systematic cultivation of olives and the use of olive oil would take place much later, during the Minoan era.
There are numerous findings related to the exploitation – some might say production – of olives in all centres of Minoan civilization on Crete. Starting with Knossos, the centre of Minoan civilization, we discover that there was a palatial olive grove comprising 400 olive trees, an olive oil mill outside the palace, as well as enormous urns for olive oil storage believed to have had a capacity of 250 tonnes of olive oil.
In the palace of Phaistos, located in the Messara Valley, there have been findings related to olive crushing and olive oil production.
In Kommos, the port of Phaistos on the southern coast of Crete, an intact Minoan olive oil mill was found; this is considered to be the oldest and most complete olive oil production facility of Minoan Crete (related tools, mortars, etc. have been found).
In eastern Crete, urns used for olive oil storage were found: they filled the warehouses of the famous palace of Kato Zakros (1,700 – 1,500 BC). It is certain that this product was transported to and from the Middle East and Egypt, since Zakros was one of the most important commercial ports of Crete. Furthermore, the world’s oldest table olives, 3,500 years old, were found in the now-famous cup located at the bottom of a well. These olives have attracted the interest of the scientific community due to their age, their use (it is believed a Minoan priest dedicated them to the chthonic goddesses) and their dematerialization just minutes after their discovery… “Unfortunately, the olives lost their sheen and flesh and hopelessly shrunk when removed from the environment in which they were found, i.e. the muddy waters of the Zakros well”.
Other findings include olive stones in Myrto, Ierapetra, in Knossοs, in Chamalevri, Rethymnon, where crushed olive stones have been found; this means that olive oil was produced in 2,000 BC and the stones were used as fuel for heating people’s homes.
Ιn Psira (1,500 BC), where a great trading-naval hamlet with close ties to Knossos thrived, murals and urns related to olives have been found.
On the Isle of Mochlos, north of Sitia (3,000 – 1,500 BC), findings include olive tree leaves with their stems.
The olive tree in the everyday life of Minoans
All these findings, residue of trees and olives, early olive oil mills, tools, storage areas and more, provide us with information that can be used to extract certain conclusions on how Minoan farmers utilized the olive tree. French historian and researcher Paul Faure beautifully describes the cultivation of olive trees and the production of olive oil in his book “Everyday life on Minoan Crete”. The author begins with the realization that Minoans considered the olive tree to be very important, almost sacred, not only because they ate its fruit and used its oil, but also because this oil served numerous uses in preparing food, in perfume-making, in burning wood for heat, in religion, in sports , etc.
“…This explains the interest of Minoans in planting, maintaining and expanding their olive groves, the wealth, glory and jewel of their rural country. All this convinces us that the large number and great yield of olive trees ensured the economic dominance of Crete over the Aegean region, as well as the islands and mainland Greece during the middle Bronze age”.
The Minoans of Crete “transformed wild olive trees, i.e. the variety of that era, into cultivated trees, through pruning and grafting, and propagated them in nurseries, using transplanting and grafting. They ploughed the groves 2 or 3 times a year, from February to April, so as to increase production yield. For the same reason, they fertilized the trees with crashed olive stonesl and irrigated the land”.
They also found ways to store and preserve olive tree products, as their population greatly increased during the middle Minoan era and, therefore, so did their needs. Olive harvesting began in November and ended in early March. We find that the process did not particularly differ from present-day harvesting. Edible olives were preserved in brine, as the fruit of the olive tree was part of their daily diet, and was also offered to their gods. Other olives were collected and crushed in primitive olive oil mills in order to produce olive oil; numerous such mills have been excavated in centres of Minoan civilisation.
Minoan olive oil production techniques
In regard to the olive oil production process, Paul Faure writes:
“Olives that weren’t consumed were crushed in a wooden mortar using a wooden pestle. The crushed olives were then placed in hairy sacks that were placed between a type of small bin with a nozzle and a pile of planks used as a press. They usually increased pressure by placing an enormous lever arm on top of the planks; its one end was fastened to the wall and its other was bent using manual force and sacks containing rocks that were hung on it.
From this first pressing, oil would drip into an urn or bin. It was then transferred for storage into farm basins or used to fill goatskin drainers. They then piled the stones, which still contained a lot of oil, and heated the pile for twenty days. The pile was pressed once more and the oil distilled this time was more bitter and sour and was no more than a third of the volume produced by the first pressing.
Finally, they cleared this final quantity of oil by placing the stones in warm water within a special clay container to separate the oil… Oily substances would rise to the surface. The heavier pomace and water were emptied through a pipe at the bottom of the bin ”.
The olive tree and olive oil as symbols
“Olive trees had to be planted by children or virgins”! This conviction, which originated in Cilicia, as well as numerous others derive from people’s belief that the olive tree, being a sacred tree, should be honoured and protected in order to yield its fruit… “the olive is a pure tree and, thus, desires that those who collect its fruit should also be pure”. This is why men involved in the cultivation of olive trees must honour their families (eukarpia – fecundity) “…and not lie with women other than their wives ”.
Western societies may find it difficult to perceive the extent to which local tradition and customs have embraced a product that, up until recently, was considered the cause of numerous diseases that afflicted the peoples of the Mediterranean basin, while they exclusively used butter, which they lauded for its healthy properties. However, the olive tree and olive oil are integrally linked with Mediterranean cultures. For the people of the region, the olive tree has been a symbol since antiquity and it is found everywhere. In ancient Greece, it is encountered in numerous myths. The best known such myth claims that two gods, Athena and Poseidon, competed for the name of the city of Athens by offering gifts; Athena was the victor because she offered an olive branch, as a symbol of wisdom, prosperity and peace.
People using the products of the olive tree feel so blessed by this tree, which they use in dozens of ways, that they want to intimately thank it and – why not – ensure that it will thus continue to yield its fruit. This is a voluntary relationship of exchange between its people-users and the “divine” product.
Even today, before the olive harvest begins, the holy mystery of benediction usually takes place, thus blessing the soil and tree so that it yields plentiful and healthy fruit. This practice and numerous others still prevail.
“If wine is spilled on the earth, it is good luck; but if oil is spilled, it is said to be bad luck”.
This is the one of dozens of “paratirimata” (“contemplations”), as Cretans call the interpretation given to the various shapes that olive oil may take. In many regions, the shapes created when olive oil falls into the font where the child is to baptized lead to conclusions about what the child will become when it grows up. If a cross is formed, then everyone is pleased because the child will enter the clergy and may even become a lord. If the oil forms a drop, the child will be a miser. If it creates wavy patterns, the child will take the wrong path, while if the oil breaks into many drops, the child will be rich and generous.
What is particularly interesting is that, while this “olive tree culture” - as many rightly call it - may often be supported or fed by the supernatural or the inexplicable and oftentimes recreates practices of an almost idolatrous nature, it still survives in modern Mediterranean society. Despite tradition growing weaker and gradually giving way to rational and scientifically accepted notions, not only does this culture survive, but it also accompanies Mediterranean populations at all major events of their lives, such as birth, marriage, death, baptism and the struggle for survival:
- Olive branches are still used to make wedding crowns on Crete.
- When a boy is born, an olive wreath would be hung on the front door of the house.
- Throughout Greece, the oil used during baptisms must be olive oil; it is spread on the body of the child and used to form a cross on its forehead so that it may receive divine blessing.
- On Cyprus, the New Year would be welcomed by hanging olive branches on the front door of people’s homes.
- When a house was built in Greece, they would make a cross on the roof and decorate it with olive branches (a symbol of resilience and immortality that would transfer its properties onto the new home).
A sacred, miraculous tree
The olive tree is considered to be sacred and, thus, miraculous. Believers afflicted with an illness would place a piece of their clothing– usually the one touching the ailing part of the body – on an olive tree and believed that this would cleanse their body and remove their illness.
Olive oil has always had a special place in funereal ceremonies. Egyptians would spread olive oil on the heads of mummies. Romans and ancient Greeks would anoint their dead with scented olive oil. Ancient Greeks would place olive branches on the deceased and would often place the stones of edible olives next to bodies about to be buried.
In early 20th century Greece, variants of the following funereal ceremony still existed: the relatives of the deceased would stuff the casket pillow with olive leaves , while in the Messara Valley on Crete, even to this day, priests deposit 3 olive branches in the grave during burial as a symbol of eternity and immortality. Throughout Crete, relatives keep a small votive lamp with olive oil lit at the graves of the deceased.
The symbolisms of the olive tree and olive oil are countless; they serve as symbols of peace, knowledge, wisdom, prosperity and hope. The creators of folk stories and traditions condense all these properties of the olive tree in a single myth, thus explaining its sanctity.
Since then, olive trees have not grown old. They may wither, but their dry roots blossom and they become young once more".
However, it wasn’t just the olive tree and olive oil that created a culture. It was the productive process itself, particularly the olive harvest, which requires the cooperation and simultaneous presence of numerous people for many days; it is associated with passions, weakness, friction, as well as love and romances that fed the imagination and creativity of folk singers and mantinada writers:
“May olives be damned, may they wither and dry For ’til the harvest is complete many a love does die!”
When someone wanted to tease a beautiful girl or make fun of her new riches, he’d sing: “You think you’re high and mighty now that you own two olive trees and stick your nose high in the air, you dirty little tease”
Even dowries were often given in olive oil or olive trees: “Why wed her, son, this girl of disrepute? she barely owns a single olive root!”.
The multiple uses of liquid gold
The high number of symbolisms attached to the olive tree and their wide range is due to its multiple uses. This resilient tree does not only provide its fruit and juices, but also its foliage and wood. The olive tree has defined the nutritional habits of Mediterranean peoples, but it has also been used in carpentry, wood-carving, sports, religion, even folk medicine and cosmetics, while it has also served as inspiration for the arts and literature.
The ingenuity of Mediterranean people on how to use the olive tree, which represented the source of life to them, is remarkable. The contribution of this resilient tree to their survival is so great that it could not but be placed at the centre of their worship. Since antiquity, anointment with oil has been a symbolism for sanctity, so supplicants anointed with olive oil had divine protection. The statues and altars of gods were anointed with olive oil, which was also a main ingredient of offers to the gods. The Minoans also made libations of olive oil, wine and unprocessed olives to chthonic divinities. Even today, Christians offer olive oil to the church. On Crete, no matter what chapel you visit, even at the top of steep mountains, you will find bottles of olive oil and wine, offered by the faithful. Votive lamps are filled with olive oil and lit.
The oil is thus blessed and becomes miraculous. According to sailors, using a little oil from the votive lamp of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, will calm the sea…
The healthy properties of olive oil, combined with the “sanctity” ascribed to it by believers, led to the conviction that it also had healing properties. Since antiquity, olive oil has been part of folk medicine for dulling pain and curing usually mild afflictions.
The Hippocratic Code contains over sixty pharmaceutical uses of olive oil, the main ones being its use against skin diseases, as a contraceptive, as well as an auxiliary and healing medium in the case of difficult labour . For the doctors of antiquity, olive oil could be used to treat chronic fevers, small wounds, tooth abscesses, inflamed gums, as well as to preserve the whiteness of teeth and to treat cases of mild poisoning. Finally, brews of the leaves and flowers of the olive tree were used as a cold eye-wash for inflamed eyes, as well as for treating stomach ulcers. In the early 20th century, when “practitioners” would massage the neck to cure tonsils, they would whisper:
“From highest peak to lowest dell I searched the world in toil, and found no better remedy than doctor’s olive oil”,
meaning votive lamp oil. Votive lamp oil was used in many other cases, e.g. to open abscesses or (added by translator) for massaging. It was also used to anoint various herbs that were used to create poultices for the navel, the abdomen and the chest. When someone was pricked by a thorn, the wound would be cauterized with a single drop of hot oil to avoid infection: “dip a green olive shoot into the votive lamp oil and place it on the point of infection to stop it spreading”.
Even therapeutic “recipes” appeared. For example, faced with any injury or spondyloarthritis, a folk doctor would prescribe the following:
“Take a cup of olive oil and some chamomile. Place them in a pan and heat them for a long while. Add a spoonful of honey, a spoonful of vaseline, a little wax the size of a walnut-half or a little pure beeswax. Beat it all together until the mixture is thick”.
To soften a hard heel, you would dip pieces of stale brown bread in warm olive oil, mix them into a paste and apply that paste onto the heel.
Many of these therapeutic practices are still used today. Olive oil is used to massage a painful abdomen and, having been scented with mountain herbs, it is spread on dry parts of the body, as well as the skin of babies (mixed with St. John’s wort). Its use against skin conditions has been known since antiquity and is possibly due to the effect of vitamin E.
in cosmetics and sports
Olive oil is also used in cosmetics, particularly in recent years, when, for health reasons, natural products have been gaining ground as compared to conventional ones. It is believed that brittle hair can be improved by applying a natural olive-oil coating.
Herbs and spices are used to scent numerous cosmetic oils that are also used as perfumes, while olive-oil soap bars keep increasing their share in the soap market. Olive oil is a main ingredient for many face and body creams, thus reviving a practice that has survived unchanged since antiquity: the Olympian goddesses themseles used a type of poultice made of olive oil, believed to have miraculous effects on the body.
The athletes of ancient Greece and Rome would coat their muscles in olive oil so as to keep them supple. The olive tree and olive oil were also important in sports. Victors in the Olympic Games would be crowned with wreaths made from the leaves of the wild olive tree planted by Hercules. During the Panathenean Games (600 BC), the prizes given to winners were decorated amphorae filled with olive oil from the “Mories” (Holy) olive trees.
in the arts and literature
The respect and awe Mediterranean people have for the life-giving olive tree has made the tree a source of inspiration for countless artists from the Minoan era and classical antiquity until today. Murals, vase paintings, coins, sculptures and many more have the olive tree and its branches or foliage as their main motif. The best-known “artistic appearances” of the olive tree in the Minoan era can be found in the renowned Knossos murals, depicting branches and flowers; these can be admired at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The paintings on Minoan urns-amphorae are also of exceptional artistic quality. Examples include the cup with a blossoming olive branch from Knossos (1,600-1,500 BC) and the amphora found on the small island of Psira off the northern coast of eastern Crete, decorated with ox heads and olive blossoms on every side (1,600-1,500 BC).
The olive tree was also a motif frequently used in gold jewellery fashioned during the Minoan era. One of the best known findings of this era is a piece of jewelry consisting of a sheaf of golden olive tree leaves, found in the pre-palatial cemetery on the small island outside the contemporary hamlet of Mochlos, north of the village Lastros in Sitia . However, the olive tree still remains a central theme for many present-day artists. The renowned Greek painter Theophilus considers the olive tree to be his “model” and dedicates “The Olive Harvest”, one of his most famous paintings, to the tree. Sculptors, goldsmiths and other artisans are inspired by the olive tree, which is also used today to beautify and decorate public spaces, luxurious homes and even modern shopping malls.
The olive tree, its fruit, olive oil and its production process have served as themes for many artists and scholars. From ancient poets, tragedians and historians (Homer, Plato, Pausanias, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and others) to modern Greek poets and prose writers, such as Palamas, Kalvos, Mavilis, Venezis, Drosinis, Myrivilis, Nirvanas, Sikelianos, Papadiamandis, Kazantzakis, Frangoulis, and others.
The easiest agricultural activity
“It lives and bears fruit for centuries, it grows on any type of soil, it loves the Mediterranean climate, it requires minimal care and can be fully used as fruit, foliage and wood”. This is the olive tree.
Its cultivation process is simple and relatively easy. This is why almost every family on Crete has its own olive trees, which they care for, cultivate and exploit, in order to produce olives for eating and olive oil milling to meet their own household needs and, frequently, to sell to supplement their income. It is noteworthy that apart from families living in rural regions, where they are expected to be involved in agricultural activities, including the cultivation of olive trees, there are also families living in urban centres that own an olive tree or even trees in their villages of origin. Thus, the overwhelming majority of Cretans produce olive oil for their own annual consumption – at least - while all members of the family participate in the production process, thus preserving the traditional customs linked directly or indirectly with the productive process.
The olive oil production process consists of three stages: cultivation, harvest and oil production.
The cultivation of olive trees is perhaps one of the least demanding and most environmentally friendly farming activities. It includes the cultivation and care for the soil, watering, pruning and protection of trees from diseases so that they can bear healthy, plentiful and oil-rich fruit.
Olive trees can even grow on rocky soil. However, even in such cases, it is necessary to cultivate the soil, which includes tilling it and enriching it with suitable fertilizer at the right time and using proper quantities. Many use mild pesticides to rid olive groves of weeds that rob the trees of valuable moisture and nutrients.
Olive trees are usually not watered, as they grow in coastal areas of the Mediterranean, where there is limited rainfall and, thus, little water. However, in recent years, olive oil producers ensure that olive trees are watered from time to time in the springtime, as well as when rainfall is low, because it has been proven that irrigation benefits yield. In areas with a sheer terrain, the existence of terraces greatly helps retain rainwater and soil moisture.
After cultivation and watering comes pruning, which greatly helps the renewal and yield of olive trees. Two types of pruning usually take place: (a) yield pruning, which aims at keeping the tree productive and short, and takes place annually, normally during harvest or in early spring, and (b) renewal pruning, which is performed on old, tall trees and aims at increasing their yield.
As is the case with all plants, the olive tree is vulnerable to specific types of pests, such as scales and olive flies. If these are not addressed in time, the tree can grow sick, with devastating effects on the quantity and quality of the olives it bears and, consequently, the olive oil produced. In order to rid olive trees from these insects, timely plant protection with the use of special pesticides is required. Within the framework of the broadly accepted trend of minimizing the use of special pesticides so that wholesome, organic products may be produced, numerous studies have been conducted and have led to the creation of exceptionally mild pesticides.
After all the above have taken place, a producer can enjoy a healthy, strong tree. Olive trees yield the greatest possible quantities of olives every second year and Cretans call the year when a rich olive harvest takes place “Vendema”.
The first stage of olive oil production is olive harvesting, called “liomazema” on Crete. The time when it takes place is very important, as the quality of the oil to be produced depends on the maturation point of the olive fruit. Producers know that the fruit is ready, i.e. that it has reached the highest content of oil, when it begins to redden and acquires a shiny, blackish colour. The period when this happens varies depending on the climate and altitude of the region and usually lasts from autumn to spring. However, in coastal areas, this happens in late October to November. If the harvest is delayed, there is a risk that strong winds and poor weather may cause olives to fall off the tree – this is why during this period one will encounter crowds of people out in the olive groves.
The harvest is a laborious task, since it usually takes place in winter, when it is cold and conditions are somewhat harsh. A proper harvest is very important, as the quantity and good quality of the olive oil depend on it.
From the 5th century up until 30 to 20 years ago, olives were harvested by striking the boughs with canes and collecting the olives from the ground. Today, the olive harvest on Crete takes place almost exclusively by striking the boughs to cause olives to drop into cloth or plastic sheets that producers have previously placed beneath the olive trees. Until 15 years ago, this striking took place using wooden or plastic canes handled by men and women, who would strike the tree along its height. Today, this method is used very rarely and it is almost extinct; it has been replaced by special olive-caning tools handled by labourers. These apparatus consists of a stick, which has plastic strips attached to its end. These strips rotate and shake the boughs of the tree, causing the olives to fall without being harmed. The apparatus is highly mobile, easy to use and greatly increases the productivity of labourers, since harvesting becomes faster and results in improved quality of olive oil.
After the caning, olives are separated from small branches and leaves that may have fallen into the nets. This cleaning takes place using a rake or sieve. After they have been cleaned, the olives are placed in flax sacks placed under trees in small rows until they can be transported to the olive oil mill. It is important that these sacks are loosely woven and not stacked one on top of the other, so as to ensure proper ventilation of the olives – otherwise, harmful fermentation will take place, increasing the acidity and compromising the quality of the olive oil.
Olive oil production
The process of extracting oil from olives consists of three stages: crushing the olive, compressing it and separating it from water and other impurities. It is truly remarkable how these stages remain virtually unchanged over centuries. In antiquity, production took place without olive presses: people would crush olives using large rocks or their feet (primitive production).
In the Bronze Age, the first stone cylinders turned manually or with a wooden lever appeared. The cylindrical grinder, which could be powered by animals, appeared soon after. Traditional olive oil mills, which still survive and have great monumental – demonstrative value, feature a rotary mill (run) and large stone wheels at the centre; these would have been dragged by horses or oxen.
Olives were dropped into the run and the stone wheels would crush them, releasing the fruit oil. In the 1930s-40s, traditional olive oil mills gradually started being abandoned, although in areas with low olive oil production, traditional milling took place up until the 1980s. The great leap in olive oil production took place in the 20th century and it was rather rapid. Since then, the production of olive oil takes place in organized mills that follow specific production processes to ensure the highest possible quality of olive oil.
The conditions of sanitation at the oil mill are of particular importance, as are the temperatures that develop, which are of crucial importance for the quality and preservation of the nutritional and qualitative characteristics of the olive oil. The tanks used to store olive oil must be made of stainless steel and must be placed in a shaded area, so that the olive oil may be safely stored for long periods of time with no compromise in its quality.
In summary, an olive oil mill is a small “factory” consisting of the area where olives are received, emptied and washed, the grinder, where the olives are crushed using mechanical hammers (grindstones were used in the past), the kneader, where the olive paste is kneaded, the centrifuge, where the stone is separated from the rest of the olive, and the decanter, where the olive oil is separated from water.
There are approximately 2,800 olive oil mills currently operating in Greece and approximately 550 of those are located on Crete . The olive processing and oil extraction processes consist of the following stages:
|Transport & storage||The sacks collected at the olive grove during harvest are transported to the local olive oil mill and are stored there until the production process begins. It is important that sacks are placed in small piles on pallets. This facilitates not only their transportation but also allows the ventilation of the olives within the sacks, which is necessary in order for fermentation to be avoided. Olives cannot stay in storage for more than a day or two and their processing must begin immediately afterwards.|
|Cleaning & washing||The sacks are emptied and the crop is separated from leaves. The goal is to keep the olives pure and clean. This takes place with the use of a special machine called a “leaf remover”. This process is necessary because if a large quantity of leaves is ground up with the olives, the olive oil will taste bitter and contain a lot of chlorophyll (green colour), which has a negative effect on its quality. The crop is cleaned of leaves and any other foreign materials (ground, dust) found in olives.|
|Grinding||The olives are then ground up, i.e. cut up into small pieces, which form a syrupy olive paste, which contains the olive oil and all other ingredients of the olive (effluents, etc.). Great care must be taken during grinding so that the temperature of the paste does not rise excessively and so that the pulverization of the olives is not excessive, as this may make the olive oil produced bitter.|
|Olive paste kneading||The olive paste is then kneaded in special round or elongated mixers. It is important that the walls of these mixers are made of stainless steel and that the temperature of the paste does not exceed 27οC. The kneading must take place for approximately 27 to 45 minutes.|
|Separation of olive oil||Finally, the liquids contained in olives and solid debris (stones) are separated. The most common method of separation on Crete is centrifugation. This method uses special horizontal decanters, which ensure automated conditions and high levels of cleanliness. In recent years, the practice of common pressing has become popular, as it allows producers to produce oil within 8 hours from the collection of olives, thus achieving lower acidity levels and a better price.|
Standardisation, care, storage, and preservation
After the production of olive oil is complete, it is stored and, if it is to be marketed, it undergoes a standardization process.
The method of storage is very important so as to ensure that the olive oil preserves its scent, colour, flavour and valuable ingredients. In no case must it be exposed to sunlight or high temperatures, while its exposure to oxygen and humidity must take place with care, as these conditions may spoil the product. Therefore, the ideal conditions for its storage are in dry dark and cool spaces where no air can enter. Olive oil in large quantities must be stored in darkened glass bottles or stainless steel containers located in suitably housed areas to protect them from high temperatures. Transparent plastic or glass bottles should be avoided.
Standardisation and audits conducted regularly by the competent authorities concern olive oil meant to be sold and are, in essence, the means through which consumers can receive information on and be assured about the origin and quality of the product. Standardisation requires that the olive oil packaging includes indications such as the expiration date (usually between 12 and 24 months) and the standardiser’s information. The containers used are chosen according to strict criteria for the assurance of product quality. This is why they are equipped with safety nozzles, so as to avoid adulteration.
In Greece, the standardisation of certified olive oil includes strict controls at all stages of processing and production, in order to ensure the sale of top quality olive oil and, by extension, to safeguard consumers from adulterated products. Controls always take place according to the specifications established by the European olive oil regulation and according to the high standards set by each company, guaranteeing the purity of the final product. Controls include sample testing, regular audits of facilities and product traceability.
The Mediterranean diet as a way of life
In the countries of the Mediterranean basin, diet is a way of life – and cooking is part of people’s everyday culture. The impressive terrain and rich nature of this land has always been linked with a multiplicity of cultural phenomena and, consequently, gastronomy, which is the principal expression of a land’s idiosyncrasy.
Thus, the diet of the broader geographical region of the Mediterranean is today the most famous around the world for its beneficial properties for human health, as well as its gustatory delight, as it includes a wide variety of ingredients, scents and colours. The combination of food quality and flavour has always been sought after.
It is no accident that 2,500 years ago Hippocrates believed food should not only be healthy but also pleasant to taste. He preferred food that was of lower quality but that he found delicious, because he believed that the positive effects on humans due to biochemical processes caused by a quality meal, which also provides a feeling of satisfaction, are of greater importance.
Thus, gastronomy originated centuries ago as the art of preparing rich and delicious meals. The importance of the health aspect has always been primary as well. Asclepius, a God of ancient Greek mythology and the central figure of the hero-healer arche-type, reflected the entire perception of the healing power of nature, of which nutrition is an integral part and was protected by one of his five daughters, the goddess Hygieia.
Homer also spoke of the relationship between nutrition and health, which was scientifically supported by Hippocrates and the renowned physician Galen in later centuries. The latter was the second greatest physician of antiquity who separated the therapeutic part of health into three sectors: nutrition, medicines and surgery.
The first two had always been integrally linked with nature: nutrition depended on the fruit of the land, while medicines depended on its herbs…and it is no coincidence that these are the ingredients of cooking that have shaped the Mediterranean model and, by extension, the Greek and Cretan nutritional models.
What worldwide research on nutritional models has shown
The Cretan nutritional model enjoys pride of place internationally, as even experts from France, the birthplace of “gourmet cuisine”, admit and as established scientific studies prove. The 7-country study by the World Health Organisation, the Serge Renaud study, the recent study undertaken by the medical schools of the University of Athens and Harvard University, as well as numerous others point out the longevity of Mediterranean peoples in comparison to the life expectancy of other European peoples – and they particularly focus on the longevity of Cretans, associating it with their nutritional model.
Specifically, in the early 1960s, the World Health Organisation began a study of the nutritional habits of people from 7 different countries (Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, the USA and Japan). This study lasted for 30 years and included approximately 12,000-13,000 people aged 40-59. The study examined the relationship between nutritional habits in these regions with illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.
The results, which astounded the international scientific community, proved that people who lived in Mediterranean countries presented the lowest mortality levels due to cancer and coronary disease, while also having a longer average life expectancy (especially on the island of Crete) than the citizens of other countries.
Trying to discover the secret of this longevity, scientists were led to the conclusion that these people’s unique and natural way of life (working outdoors, increased physical activity) and their simple, modest diet, which became known around the world as the “Mediterranean Diet”, where the causes of the phenomenon. This was followed by the “Lyon heart” study by the renowned French professor Serge Renault, which examined to what extend the aforementioned factors, combined with lower stress levels, were the underlying causes of the good health of Cretans.
This study, which lasted 5 years, included 605 patients (who had already suffered a cardiac episode and were at risk of suffering a second one) and was conducted in the city of Lyon on 2 equally-sized groups. The first group was given a diet according to what the World Health Organisation proposed, while the second group was given the food content of Cretans’ diet. The results of the second group were so much better than those of the first one that Serge Renaud himself had to admit:
“Don’t look for a pill to replace the Cretan diet. There is no such thing”The Mediterranean diet and the Cretan nutritional model
What is the Mediterranean, or rather, the Cretan nutritional model? A diet based on this model has the following characteristics:
- it is rich in fruit and vegetables
- it includes pasta, bread, cereals, rice and potatoes
- it contains certain minimally processed seasonal foodstuffs
- red meat is practically prohibited and it is consumed a few times per month and in small quantities, in contrast to chicken and fish, which are consumed every week
- the daily intake of dairy produce mainly takes place in the form of cheese or yoghurt
- the most common dessert is seasonal fruit
- sweets are consumed few times a week, while sugar is often replaced by honey
- a small quantity of wine is consumed on a daily basis
Olive oil contributes to reduced rates of cardiovascular conditions and coronary heart disease. The beneficial effects of olive oil on human health were known in ancient Greece since antiquity by the fathers of Medicine, Galen, Hippocrates and Dioscorides and are still being re-confirmed by research and studies of modern medicine.
Olives and olive oil as nutritional values
The main edible products of the olive tree are its fruit and juice, the miraculous olive oil. Their qualities are incredibly beneficial for the human organism and are major nutritional values of the Mediterranean peoples, as seen in further detail below.
The relationship between olive oil and health and the heart, in particular
Olive oil, the elixir of health and longevity of ancient Greeks, is today included in the list of the top 10 most beneficial foodstuffs around the world.
In contrast to numerous other foodstuffs, olive oil is a purely natural product, without any added chemical improving agents, and it can be consumed immediately upon production. It is assimilated by the body to a percentage of 98%(!) and has the same number of calories as all other vegetable oils (9 calories/gram). It is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, in contrast to other regions that do not produce olive oil and use seed oils and animal fats. This is precisely what sets the Mediterranean diet apart from other diets in terms of quality.
Vegetable fats contain more poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, they do not contain any cholesterol and are considered to be friendly to the body and health. On the contrary, animal fats contain a high quantity of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, which damage the body and health.
There is great variation among oils, as well. Olive oil is clearly superior to other seed oils, because apart from its better taste and numerous beneficial properties for humans, it becomes less oxidized than seed oils during cooking, because it contains a lower percentage of poly-unsaturated fatty acids and a higher percentage of mono-unsaturated fatty acids.
Research and studies on the chemical analysis of olive oil and its impact on human health are numerous and have concluded that olive oil consists of 14% saturated fats, 11% poly-unsaturated fats and 60-80% oleic acid. It also includes a variety of vitamins and pro-vitamins (E and A), minerals and anti-oxidants, such as polyphenols, flavonoids, trace minerals and micronutrients.
All these micro-elements have an anti-oxidant effect on the body, protecting cells from damage caused by oxidative stress, active oxygen and free radicals, which are considered to be the primary detrimental factors leading to various chronic diseases, such as cancer . According to the conclusions of numerous medical studies , the use of olive oil:
- Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, because thanks to its high anti-oxidant content, it contributes, among other things, towards reducing cholesterol deposition, preventing or delaying the formation of atherosclerotic plaque.
- Reduces the risk of appearance of certain forms of cancer, such as breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, laryngeal cancer, ureteral cancer and prostate cancer, thanks to its main anti-carcinogenic ingredients, such as vitamin E, squalene, rutin and sitosterol.
- Facilitates vasodilation, having a positive effect on reducing hypertension thanks to its content of mono-unsaturated fatty acids.
- Supports the proper and balanced growth of children. Oleic acid, which is plentiful in both olive oil and breast milk, has been shown to contribute towards reducing cholesterol and triglycerides, while the positive effect of oleic acid on calcium absorption increases bone density.
- Contributes to a smooth aging process and enhances longevity, while having an inhibiting effect on Alzheimer’s disease, thanks to its high content of natural anti-oxidants that offer protection from the deterioration of the central nervous system and the brain due to ageing.
- Contributes to the healthy operation of the brain and the proper growth of the central nervous system, thanks to its fatty acids.
- Enhances the digestive system and reduces the risk of stomach ulcer and gastritis. This is because olive oil, more than any other substance, has the best index of digestibility and absorbency by the intestinal walls. Moreover, it creates a feeling of satiation and favours the digestion of food nutrients.
- Protects the skin from solar radiation.
The nutritional value of olives
The beneficial effects of olives on the human body are enormous, thanks to the olive’s rich vitamin, protein and sugar content. Specifically, edible olives contain olive oil, vitamin A and proteins –almost all main amino acids-sugars, tannins, sterol glucosides, cerebrosides and sulfolith are present. Moreover, olives contain inorganic elements that have biological value for the human body, such as iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and others. It is noteworthy that the olive’s calcium content is equal to that of cow milk (i.e. greater than that of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, bread, etc.).
Olive oil characteristics and qualities
The evaluation of olive oil quality takes place by examining its place of origin, level of acidity, oxidation, colour and organoleptic qualities, I.E. (odor and flavor)
The main criteria for the evaluation of olive oil have been established by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC).
Acidity is one of the most important criteria for professionals, as well as ordinary consumers. Fatty acids in olive oil are either free or bound to an alcohol named glycerol. Free fatty acids determine the acidity of the olive oil. Acidity is usually expressed in percentages (1.5%); the higher the figure, the more the free fatty acids.
Acidity is determined by various factors, such as olive flies that may have infested the olives, olive bruising during harvest, the time and method of olive storage and the process of olive crushing at the olive oil mill.
Oxidation (“tangisi” – rancidity) is a form of serious spoilage of olive oil that can damage human health. This is usually caused by improper conditions of exposure of the olive oil starting with and after the time of production (improper storage containers, exposure to the sun, etc.). Oxidation is determined by laboratory testing and mainly by measuring the number of peroxides.
The organoleptic qualities of olive oil (i.e. flavor and odor) are evaluated by human tasting conducted by specialized Tasters, who follow a specific process established by the International Olive Oil Council. The positive and negative qualities of the oil are assessed during its organoleptic evaluation.
The main positive qualities are fruitiness, bitterness and spiciness.
- Fruitiness gives the olive oil a fresh fruit taste and it is due to healthy, fresh olives that may be ripe or unripe. This is the most important quality for the organoleptic evaluation and, if absent, the olive oil cannot be classified as “extra virgin or fine virgin” olive oil.
- Spiceness is the piquant sensation in the throat; this is usually observed in “agoureleo” (made from green olives) and it is due to the action of phenic substances on the tip of the trigeminal nerve. This sensation disappears a few seconds after tasting.
- Bitterness is a characteristic flavour due to the use of green or greenish olives and, depending on its intensity, may be pleasant or unpleasant – but in no case is it considered to be a negative property.
Negative qualities include “atrojado” (which appears in Spanish olive oils), mould, sediments, and winey, metallic, rancid, burnt, haywood, fat, brine or other flavors. These qualities never appear in Cretan olive oils. Reference is made to these qualities in the methodologies of the International Olive Oil Council and concerns olive oils from other regions.
The color of olive oil varies. It may be deep green, light bright green, golden, or any of numerous in-between shades. The color depends on the pigments within the olives at the time of harvest. As a rule, olive oil of a mainly green colour shows that the harvest took place early, when the olives were unripe, and chlorophyll permeates the product.
The taste of these olive oils is usually quite fruity. However, there are also cases where the intensely green color of the olive oil is due to the fact that leaves and small olive tree branches were mixed in during the olive grinding process. In such cases, the olive oil tastes bitter. If the olives were harvested when they were ripe, then carotenes dominate and give the oil a golden hue.
If the color is brown or black, then the oil was made from olives that fell to the ground. This olive oil has a milder, sweeter taste.
An intensely yellow olive oil may also mean that it has been subjected to oxidation-rancidity due to exposure to the sun and air.
The quality of the olive oil is determined by the aforementioned organoleptic qualities and the level of oxidation. It is important that consumers know what they purchase, not only because flavors vary, but also because nutritional and health properties differ, as well.
Olive oil quality categories
These are the qualities of olive oil according to the internationally recognized classification of olive oil:
VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
|extra virgin oil||fine virgin olive oil|
|Maximum acidity: 0.8g in 100g of olive oil (or 0.8% acidity)||Maximum acidity: 2g in 100g of olive oil (or <2% acidity)||Maximum acidity: 1g in 100g of olive oil (or <1% acidity)|
|In essence, this is the natural fruit of olives that has not been subjected to any processing apart from crushing and, possibly, transfusion, centrifugation or filtration (productive processes) that do not alter its final quality (low temperatures at the olive oil mill, etc.). The category of virgin olive oil is separated into two sub-categories, depending on the degree of acidity, as well as the olive oil flavour:
Extra virgin olive oil is considered to be the top oil in terms of quality (natural juice). The extra virgin olive oil made from the first, unripe olives is called agoureleo (“unripe oil”) and considered even better than extra virgin olive oil, as it preserves all the characteristics of extra virgin oil, but to a higher degree. It is made in limited quantities by gathering the finest olives while they are still unripe. They must be picked by hand instead of harvested by striking the tree or picking them off the ground. Unripe oil has a limited lifespan of just 9 months.
|Τhis is a blend of good quality virgin olive oil and re-fined olive oil. The blend ratios used vary, but, in any case, the final product must have a pleasant flavour and scent, as well as a light, yellow-greenish colour.|
Types of (edible) table olives
The substances in the skin of olives give them an intensely bitter taste and, as a result, olives cannot be picked directly off a tree and eaten. However, the consumption of olives greatly benefits the human body, as the olive is rich in calcium, vitamins and other nutrients.
Since antiquity, people have known the benefits of olives and have invented various ways of processing them in order to make them edible. Today, olives are a particularly valuable addition to our daily diet and are eaten on their own, usually with bread or rusk, they accompany salads or are cooked with other foodstuffs. The recommended daily intake for an adult is at least 80g.
On Crete, the best known varieties of table olives are Throumbolia (Throumba), Chondrolia and Tsounati.
In order for olives to lose their bitterness, they have to undergo a process that can be performed in numerous ways, depending on the olive variety. This processing is quite simple; it requires the use of ordinary materials (water, salt and, more rarely, thyme or other mountain herbs) and can be done at home, if the olives are to be consumed by the family, or at small factories, if the olives are to be sold. The throumbolia variety alone has the unique property of losing its bitterness on the tree as it ripens and acquires its unique greenish-bronze colour. The most common varieties of edible olives on Crete are green tsakistes (cracked) olives in brine, stafidolies (wrinkled olives), alatsolies (salted olives) and vinegary olives.