Olive oil has accompanied our culinary culture for thousands of years, maintaining its quality and characteristic unchanged over the course of time.
This oil is not only an essential part of the Italian tradition, it is the heart (together with wheat and wine) of the food culture of all the different civilizations that have lived on the Mediterranean.
Olive oil is also one of the main elements of the Mediterranean diet, officially registered since November 2010 in the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In the contemporary age oil has been rediscovered thanks to its universally recognized qualities in both therapeutic and preventive areas associated to aging-related diseases.
The symbolism of oil and olive tree: between sacred and profane
Oil has always been more than just an ingredient, it has always had both symbolic and religious values, becoming a true cultural archetype: a symbol of fertility and rebirth, of endurance against the ravages of time, of peace and valor.
The olive tree, in fact, has always had a very important symbolism in the Christian religion. In the Old Testament, Genesis, there is a scene in which a white dove carries an olive twig in its beak, symbol of a new covenant between God and men after the Universal Flood.
The olive twig was used in ancient Greece to adorn the head of the winners of sport competitions who also received a bottle full of oil as a gift. Even Homer, the ancient Greek poet, used to call olive oil “liquid gold”.
For the Romans the olive twig was a synonym of valor and it was put on the head of the most valiant citizens.
Oil culture over time
The development of oil and of oil culture began when the populations that lived in the Mediterranean basin began a process of civilization, taming wild animals and growing plants.
The olive tree, originally from Asia Minor, spread through the Mediterranean basin thanks to the work of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. In this area its cultivation became very common because of the climate and the fertility of the soil. It later became largely widespread and the use of the plant and its fruits found so many applications that the olive tree soon became indispensable.
In Italy, thanks to the Greeks, the olive tree mainly spread in the area of Magna Grecia, while in the rest of the country olive oil was only produced in the Venafro territory and along the coast of Liguria. Later, with the Romans, the olive tree spread throughout the whole Italian territory and it soon became one of the most requested products of the Empire as it was used to cook but also as fuel for lamps.
In the past oil was also common for a medical use, as shown by the texts of Hippocrates in 460 BC, but it was mainly used as fuel for night lamps. In the kitchen olive oil was an essential element along with wine and wheat, although it was predominantly used by the wealthy classes, due to its high price.
With the decline of the Western Roman Empire, however, the production of olive oil significantly decreased and this had serious consequences on the diet of the Romans. There was a timid recovery of its production in the Middle Ages when the Benedictine and Cistercian monks did a lot to save the crops. Also in this period the production of oil was strictly linked to its use as a fuel, mainly for lamps with sacred purposes. This circumstances made olive oil a rare and therefore precious food, to the point that it was often used as a bargaining chip and its presence on the tables was limited to the banquets of rich people and religious authorities.
With the development of the Maritime Republics olive growing progressively spread throughout Italy and later to its close countries. Soon all the countries that overlooked the Mediterranean covered themselves again with olive groves and the oil trade became as important as it had been in the past.
Olive oil soon came back as the undisputed protagonist of cookery books and, from the seventeenth century, the cultivation of olive trees in Italy increased so much that olive groves became, especially in the south of the country, a landscape feature of many regions and today some of those crops have been declared World Heritage by UNESCO thanks to their beauty and majesty.