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The history of olive oil: from ancient Greece to modern-day Australia

The history of olive oil: from ancient Greece to modern-day Australia

Extra virgin olive oil is one of the oldest and most widely used oils in the world. It has a rich history that dates back to ancient Greece and has played a significant role in the economies and cultures of various regions.

Olive trees are found throughout the Mediterranean but it is thought to be the Ancient Greeks that first cultivated olive trees and produced olive oil1. They believed that olive oil was a gift from the goddess Athena and used it for various purposes, including cooking, lighting, and religious ceremonies2. Olive oil was so important to ancient Greek society that it was used as a form of currency, and even Olympic athletes were anointed with olive oil before their competitions and awarded olive branches for winning events1.

When the Romans took over Greece, they adopted the use of olive oil. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the production and consumption of olive oil. They were responsible for spreading the trees throughout their empire2. They used olive oil for cooking, lighting and for medicinal purposes. They believed that olive oil had healing properties and used it to treat a variety of ailments, from skin conditions to digestive problems2.

It’s interesting to note that what they called olive oil in ancient times, is what we today call extra virgin olive oil. The process used back then is very similar to today’s methods for extra virgin olive oil. It’s not surprising they believed it had healing properties with what we now know about extra virgin olive oil.

During the Middle Ages, olive oil production spread throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. The Moors in Spain were known for their advanced irrigation systems that allowed them to cultivate olive trees in arid regions2. Olive oil was also an essential ingredient in Islamic cuisine and was used in everything from stews to sweets.

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers brought olive trees to the New World, where they were cultivated in Mexico and South America1. The first olive trees were brought to Australia by European settlers in the early 19th century, in the 1950s and 60s, a few enterprising farmers began experimenting with olive oil production, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that extra virgin olive oil began to gain popularity in Australia3.

Today, Australia is a major producer of high-quality extra virgin olive oil. Australian extra virgin olive oil is known for its fresh, fruity flavour and is used by chefs and home cooks alike.

View article references

  1. Vossen, P. Olive Oil: History, Production, and Characteristics of the World's Classic Oils. HortScience horts. 2007 Aug; 42(5), 1093-1100.
  2. Kapellakis IE, Tsagarakis KP, Crowther JC. Olive oil history, production and by-product management. Rev Environ Biotechnol. 2008 Jan; 7(1):1-26. doi:10.1007/s11157-007-9120-9.