Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO for short) and its properties almost seem magical. It’s delicious –
with a rich flavor that is subtly sweet yet slightly nutty – silky smooth yet playfully peppery. It’s
versatile – pairing perfectly with ingredients in almost any recipe. And it’s good for you –
promoting everything from good heart health to better sleep. EVOO is so incredible it’s
forgivable to imagine its formula was the product of modern scientific research in a high-tech
lab. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. EVOO’s true origin dates back to antiquity, is
wholly natural – and is even a little mysterious.
EVOO is made from olives; that much we know for sure. But when and where olive oil first
came to be is more uncertain. Wild olives, the forebears of our modern olives, originated in Asia
Minor (present-day Turkey) during the New Stone Age around 10,000 years ago. Those wild
olives were intensely bitter, thin with little pulp, and used primarily for non-culinary purposes
such as lamp fuel, ointments, and soaps.
Steadily, the popularity of olives and olive oil spread into the eastern Mediterranean region,
where the cultivation of olive trees probably started around 7,000 years ago. The cultivation of
olive trees led to a fleshier fruit (yes, olives are fruits, not vegetables), yielding more oil of
higher quality. Still, it took several thousand years, around 1500 BCE, before oil olive caught on
Somewhere during that time, around 3000 BCE, the first olive presses were invented. These
simple millstone devices grind olives and their pits into pulp. The pulp then fills flexible woven
baskets called frails. The frails are stacked and placed under heavy stone weights. The extracted
oil and water mixture gradually separates, and the oil floats to the top, where it gets decanted.
The entire process is mechanic, which is what the term "virgin" olive oil denotes, meaning no
chemical treatment for extraction. So, while this method might seem primitive, the same
principles are used today, though today’s equipment is much more refined.
Intuition and Luck
Cultivation made olives plump and fleshy, and olive presses made producing oil more efficient.
Both took human ingenuity, but it took a couple more factors to make olive oil delicious – a
good deal of human intuition and a great deal of luck.
Remember that for thousands of years, olive oil was regarded less as food than as fuel for
burning. Often this olive oil had an unpleasant flavor. Sometimes it tasted okay. But why?
There were many reasons, but it came down to harvest timing. Under-ripe olives render the least
oil and low acidity, but the flavor will be grassy and bitter. Over-ripe olives produce a greater
yield but with high acidity unfit for human consumption. Exactly right, you get the smoothness
with a distinctive peppery aftertaste. Figuring this out took trial and error and patient
observations. Eventually, traditions formed from the knowledge and wisdom passed from many
generations over several centuries.
Fortune and Glory
The multiple-purpose use of olive oil continued to expand and become important within many
cultures. The Greeks were especially reverent of the oil tree as the most cherished gift from
Athena, their goddess of wisdom. And by the 8th century BCE, their most celebrated poet,
Homer, dubbed olive oil as “Liquid Gold,” citing its virtues in his epic poems the Iliad and
But it was the later Romans who deserved credit for boosting olive oils dominance throughout
the entire Mediterranean – and beyond. They adored the stuff! A typical Roman consumed 20
liters (over 5 gallons) in a year. The Romans loved cooking, just like many other civilizations of
the classical era. But the Romans were also adept at record keeping – they had to be to manage
an empire that covered 2.3 million square miles over Africa, Asia, and Europe. So, they
documented their recipes. Unsurprisingly, the most common ingredient is olive oil.
The Romans understood how special olive oil is, which is why today, our name is Vita Sana,
Latin for “Healthy Life.”
By the fall of the Roman Empire, olive oil had journeyed a long way, but it still had a way to go
to become the best of the best, the “EXTRA” virgin olive oil we enjoy today. That’s a trip for
another post. For now, though, let us celebrate this rich history and heritage in every drop from
every bottle of premium extra virgin olive oil.