Olive oil is often considered the queen of oils. Touted for its taste, aroma and health benefits, it is not only used in cooking, but in personal care, home improvement, natural remedies and more. So where does this wonderful substance come from?
With references dating back to ancient mythology, the exact story of the olive tree is unknown. The wild tree is native to the Mediterranean basin, and its fruit has been collected by numerous people and civilizations for centuries. Some believe that the first cultivation of olive trees took place on the island of Crete. Others argue that the formal cultivation happened on the coasts of modern day Syria and Palestine. While we may never know the true story, the use of olive oil became widespread in food preparation, religious rituals, medicines, fuel, skin care and soap making of many Mediterranean civilizations.
By the 16th century, the use and importance of olive oil was so great that Solon, the great Athenian statesman, issued a decree that not only regulated the planting of olive trees, but also made the destruction of the olive tree a crime punishable by death. Further evidence of the olive’s importance comes from its English name. “Olive” is derived from the Greek “elaion” (olive tree), which is most likely borrowed from the Semitic Phoenician “el’yon,” a word meaning “superior.”
As the trees were domesticated, the cultivation of olive trees began to spread, eventually appearing in Anatolia, Egypt, Tunis, Tripoli, Sicily and Southern Italy. Modern technology has allowed the tree to spread even further, into such diverse places as China, the United States, Australia, and Argentina. These trees, with their elongated leaves and fleshy, oil-rich fruit are a far cry from their original, wild and bushy ancestors.
As olive oil has played an increasingly significant role in the economy, commerce, and culture of many civilizations, the cultivation of the trees, the oil production process and the standards for the different variety of oils have received strict attention. Today, while the oil is made all over the world, Spain, Italy and Greece are the world’s three larges producers of olive oil, creating more than 75% of the world’s production.