Sunday, July 29, 2012

Olive Oil

I thought it would be fitting to start with, if not the oldest, one of the oldest. In my opinion, this is the queen of oils, the most famous, the one that had the most importance in the Ancient World. It will likely remain at the top of my list, even if alphabetical order comes into play. There is no great discoveries here, nothing new realy. These are the informations I wanted to keep for myself but if they can be useful for others, great!

Historical notes

This entry will probably be the most extensive one. The history of olive oil is linked with the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean, its commerce, a major part of the economic exchanges of the time. Having studied the arts and architecture of these populations as well as the religions of some of them, from ancient Egypt to the fall of the Roman Empire, the olive oil aspect is one that brings a more human, a more personal element to the comprehension of their customs and way of life. I was curious to know more about this.

In the history of humanity the debate still exists as to figure out which between olives, dates, sesame and safflowers are the oldest crop. Olives where most likely the first fruit to be turned into oil. Some of the earliest amphora found, date to Early Minoan times (island of Crete), 3500 BC. Others believe that they where turned into oil as early as 4500 BC by Canaanites who lived in present-day Israel. 

The olive tree of Vouves, in the village of Ano Vouves on the island of Crete (Greece), seems to be the oldest olive tree in the world and still produces olives today. The use of tree ring analysis has proven the tree to be at least 2000 years old but scientists from the University of Crete have estimated it to be 4000 years old. The magnificent trunk has a perimeter of 12.5 m and a diameter of 4.6 m. Considered by some as a natural monument, for obvious reason, it belongs to the tsounati variety.

There is evidence that as early as the IV dynasty (2575-2465 B.C.) olive oil was among the list of goods  imported from Syria and Palestine. Ancient Egyptians where known to use large vessels and containers to transport olive oil from trade since their climate was not ideal for the culture of olive trees. They used it for religious ceremonies, external ointment. food, gifts and perfumes. There are numerous references to the olive tree, it's branches or the fruits, in hieroglyphs, paintings and statues. Olive branch ornaments where found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922. To the Egyptians, its existence and uses where attributed to Isis, the goddess of magic and life.

Goddess Isis

Part of Greek Mythology

One day, on Mount Olympus, home of the Gods, a dispute erupted between Athena, goddess of wisdom and Poseidon, god of the seas. They both wanted to rule Attica, the area of Greece which included the city known today as Athens. A competition was set in place to see which of the two would bring the most impressive gift to mortals.

Poseidon went first, took his trident, the one he used to control the seas and smashed it onto the Acropolis hill. Almost immediately, a magnificent salt water fountain appeared. Athena for her part, was a bit less dramatic. In one of the many versions of the story, she simply bent to the earth and planted an olive tree. In an other, she threw her javelin into the earth and an olive tree miraculously appeared.

A salt water fountain, as spectacular as it may be, did not have much use in a dry, arid country. Resilient olive trees on the other hand, added beauty but also usefulness. The contest was won by Athena and so the capital is now know as Athens, in her honor.

By the north porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, is the Sacred Olive Tree. Pausanias wrote that the day after the Persians burned the Acropolis in 480 BCE this tree sprouted a new branch four feet long. Legend also says that this olive tree can be traced back to the tree originally planted by Athena here. Every invader cut it down and every time someone saved a sprig to be planted later. The most recent replanting was done by members of the American School in 1952 who saved it bit from what the Germans destroyed in 1942.

Minoan women depicted on fragments of a fresco excavated in 1914, 
dated circa 1525 to 1450 B.C

The olive tree in the Bible

Of all the plants mentioned in the Bible, the olive tree is the most sacred. It is well known historically as well as archaeologically that it was an intrinsic part of the livelihood of the people of the time, it was used as food, anointing oil, lamp oil and also as building material for doors, furniture and apparently was given high regards within the Temple of Salomon. In Genesis (8:11) in the story of Noah and the great flood, the olive leaf became known as a symbol of peace. 

The Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem, was the focal point in the daily lives of the people and many important Biblical events took place on its slopes. It's not known where exactly the "Garden of Gethsemane" (name derived from Greek for "oil press") is located. Possibly on the western slopes of the Mount of Olives. There are divergent opinions on the subject, but this was where, according to the gospels, Jesus prayed and it was where he was arrested after Judas' treason.

Giotto, The Betrayal of Jesus, 1300-1305. Padua

Olive oil production

Olive oil is, as mentioned previously, definitely part of the history of all the Mediterranean countries. Spain, Portugal all the way to Turkey, all have cultivated the olive tree and are still doing so today. As of 2007, among olive oil producing countries, Spain came in first with 42%, Italy, second with 19% and Greece third with 13% of global production. Tunisia, Turkey and the US are among the other countries with a good % of world sales.

Ouf!!! Did I forget anything? Probably but lets move on...

Olive oil for skin

Right from the start the Ancients must have recognised the moisturizing properties of olive oil. I still remember a television mini-series depicting the story of Troy and in a scene, Penelope, wife of Odysseus (Ulysses) was working an oil press. I thought it was a nice historical note.

What will it do for your skin?

Help keep your skin soft and supple
Fabulous for nails and cuticles
Help reduce hair breakage


It can be uses as a cleanser. Works better on damp skin, it removes everything, even the most stubborn waterproof eye makeup. Wipe with a damp washcloth and you can be done right there with your evening routine since the residue can be left on the skin for moisture. Now many people can do this but it can be disastrous for others. It can be highly clogging so it would be best to do a little patch test first, especially if you're acne prone. It's unfortunately not a miracle product for everyone. If it breaks you out, it is not purging so stop. Many who break out from it can still use it as an eye makeup remover.


As a moisturizer it can be used, like any oil, on both dry and damp skin. At the end of your shower, spreading olive oil on your wet skin and patting dry makes is an easy way to help your skin keep the moisture in. If you use it on dry skin, it can take more than a few minutes to sink in depending on the amount you've used. You could use it only on try spots like knees and elbows. Great for feet at night, cover with cotton socks. This is nice to do in winter.

For a DIY body scrub. Mix equal amounts of olive oil and sugar. I love brown sugar for this, it gives it a nice smell. Less expensive and as effective if not superior to whatever you can buy on the market. Do not use this on your face. The unevenness of the sugar could cause micro tears on your skin and cause irritation. This is especially good for your feet.

Olive oil and brown sugar for a luxurious body scrub


30 minutes or so before showering, saturate your hair with olive oil. You will have to shampoo twice but this will help make your hair stronger and silky looking. For a hot oil treatment, just warm up the oil, apply to hair and cover with a shower cap. Wash after 30 minutes or so.

A word of caution. Be extra careful if you use olive oil or any oil for that matter in your bath or shower. It can make them super slippery. I'm not a bath person but on the rare occasions I take one, this is the reason why I don't put oil in my water. Also the fact that oil is lighter than water, I don't like to see puddles or it at the surface. But that's me.


If like me you cook with olive oil, then you probably have your bottle at the ready on your kitchen counter. When handling food, hands have to be rinsed, washed and washed again depending on what is prepared. A few drops of oil on the back on your hands makes the process less drying and will not make your hands slimy like a hand lotion or cream would with a weird taste transferring to your food. Doing this has not only helped the skin of my hands but my cuticles profited a lot from this.

You could, if you feel like doing something luxurious for your hands, warm up the oil and soak your fingers in it a few minutes. Since I don't have the time for this, I sometimes do a quick scrub by mixing sugar with the oil, the same as you can do in the shower. It takes a few minutes and it leaves my hands feeling super soft.

Beauty inside and out

Prime component of mediterranean diets with a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidative substances, make olive oile beneficial to one's health. When you search on the internet for its health benefits, you always come across the fact that it offers protection against heart disease because it helps controll LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and help raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels. Highly tolerated by the stomach it has a protective fonction and beneficial effects.

In my opinion, the benefits of eating extra virgin olive oil outweigh its topical uses. I started cooking exclusively with it in my 20's. and combined with a more serious skin care regimen, I can honestly say that it's helped not only my skin but my overall health. No cholesterol, extra virgin olive oil is the one with the higher levels of antioxidants, especially vitamin E and phenols. Tastes good, good for you! In my book, it's a win win situation.                                                                                                                                     
Tomatoes, feta & basil, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil

This is a compilation of notes taken from some of the many websites I've consulted. If you do a web search you will see it's all out there. This read may be just the tip of the iceberg if you're interested to learn more about olive oil since I've only scratched the surface.

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