There are few better places to contemplate the very roots of Western Civilization than a sun-drenched outdoor taverna on a Greek island. And invariably when you do so and ponder Plato or Socrates and the philosophy of life, you will be sitting at a simple table adorned with the very same nectar that first lubricated these minds and stirred their souls: clean and pure fresh-pressed golden Greek olive oil.
Along with crystal-clear sunlight and ink-blue seas, the olive is justifiably one of the quintessential symbols of Greece – though paradoxically the oil of this most majestic of fruits sometimes seems one of the country’s best kept secrets. Of course this has not always historically been the case and many are working to make sure that Greek olive oil is anything but a well-kept secret in the future as fine-quality olive oil and its many culinary converts should well appreciate.
Olive Trees Take Root
The Middle East oil boom began not in the twentieth century but thousands of years before Christ. Olives – and their oil – have lubricated every Mediterranean culture since the very dawn of history. As early mankind made his first feeble footsteps into an agrarian culture, the olive tree was one of the first plants to be cultivated. The olive tree spread from the Middle East to Crete where the Minoan Greeks were the first to engage in full-scale cultivation of the olive. Fossilized olive leaves dating to 37,000 B.C. have been discovered on the Greek island of Santorini.
The olive and its oil quickly spread around the world, though the Mediterranean is still where its soul is so firmly rooted and perhaps this is nowhere more true than in Greece where the olive tree and its nectar are truly considered gifts from the gods. When Zeus strutted down from Mt. Olympus seeking the right deity to rule over Attica and the hill where the marbled Acropolis would stand, he devised a contest and the god who gave mankind the best gift would win…Poseidon gave man the horse, atop which man might ride where he pleased and even conquer kingdoms. Athena, the sagacious goddess of wisdom, produced an olive tree and Athens and her glories began to take flourish.
Indeed, the wizened trunk of the olive tree is elegantly and deeply imprinted with the very calligraphy of Western civilization. Homer called olive oil ‘liquid gold,’ and Hippocrates christened it ‘the great healer,’ the poetess Sappho sang the praises of the olive from the island of Lesvos, still a major source of Greek olive oil today. When Odysseus returned from his odyssey, he collapsed contentedly down in the matrimonial bed he’d made for Penelope from a massive olive trunk. Early history and ancient wisdom were written down and read by the shimmering, clear gleam of olive oil lamps. The olive tree has stood for peace and fertility. So sacred was its fruit that for a time in Ancient Greece only virgins and young men sworn to chastity were allowed to harvest its fruit. Olympic victors were crowned with its wreaths; the staff of Hercules was carved from an olive trunk. When Xerxes invaded Ancient Greece from Persia, he destroyed the Acropolis and burned Athena’s sacred tree. When Athenians returned to their citadel to find the rubble of the ravaged temple on their most holy of hills, all that remained were the charred roots of Athena’s gifted tree; showing its resilience, the sacred roots soon sprouted silver-green again and bore fruit, coming now also to symbolize resurrection and rebirth. The olive and its oil have also signified wealth and power; kings and emperors were anointed with olive oil.
Since the very dawn of history, olive oil has beautified the body, cured illness and nourished the body and soul. It continues to do so today and in fact, the siren song of the humble olive and its oil may perhaps be growing even louder than ever as more and more people around the world come to appreciate its bounty. Long before the words ‘Mediterranean Diet’ were flung around like thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus, the ancient Greek philosophers and physicians had discovered the curative properties of olive oil and this knowledge, like so many other gifts of the ancients, is firmly and fanatically being ‘rediscovered’ today as modern doctors, dieticians and epicures and foodies fervently tout the health and longevity benefits of the Mediterranean Diet and its firm foundation in olive oil consumption.
Around the 5th century B.C. Greek colonists took the olive tree with them and helped propagate it around the Mediterranean basin – the area that is still home to over 90% of the world’s olive trees. In looking at the history of olive oil and the country where its roots are perhaps more intertwined and deeply dug-in than anywhere else on earth, we might well get a glimpse into what the very future holds for olive oil.
Greek Olive Oil Today and Tomorrow
Though Greece is a relatively small country of only 10 million people, they are the world’s third largest producer of olive oil (behind Italy and Spain) and Greeks are by far the largest consumers of olive oil in the world. The average olive oil consumption of every single Greek man, woman and child is over 26 liters per person annually and even more than that on the island of Crete, which also boasts one of the world’s highest average life expectancies. This is compared to less than a liter per person annual average consumption in North America.
In Greece today, olive oil production accounts for approximately 10% of the total agricultural production. Greek growers tend some 14 million olive trees – 1.4 olive trees per person though in this rocky and rugged land the cultivation of the olive is often not that different from the methods used in ancient times.
The olive and its oil are not only ubiquitous in Greece, but a vital part of the regular diet. Along with being the world’s leading per capita consumers of olive oil and the world’s third largest producers, they happen to lead the world in percentage of output that is coveted extra virgin olive oil: approximately 80% of the olive oil produced in Greece is extra virgin, compared with approximately 50% of Italian and Spanish oils. Perhaps it is no surprise that many chefs and culinary experts consider Greek olive oil to be among the best in the world. Indeed, though Greece is the world’s largest producer and exporter of extra virgin olive oil, this leads to what might very well be the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Greek olive oil industry: they still sell the vast majority of their olive oil in bulk to Italy to be blended with local oil and labeled and sold as ‘Italian’ olive oil for international export. To some Greeks it is a situation that positively drips with the pathos and tragedy of ancient Athenian playwrights.
Given the tremendous global growth in the olive oil industry and the new-found fascination with culinary excellence, many Greek olive oil producers today are looking to expand their market share and become more competitive internationally. The ironic fact may be that the very same qualities that sometimes slowed down Greek olive oil marketing in the past may represent their best hopes for the future. Now that EVOO is actually in the dictionary and poised on the lips of epicures the worlds over, Greece may well be finding a way to take advantage of what have sometimes seemed drawbacks; isolation, classic techniques and small, individual growers. As long as the world’s thirst for the elixir that is EVOO continues to grow, the country that produces so much of it may be poised for a new era.
Because Greece is mountainous and rugged and many of its olive groves are in small, inaccessible orchards, cultivation does not lend itself to mass production nor to machine picking. This very fact may be a saving grace for the upper-tier olive oil market. Small olive groves in inaccessible areas are by necessity hand-picked and often freshly pressed on the same soil where they’re grown. Greeks may today be learning to exploit this asset and move beyond the more humble business of bulk export. More Greek producers are going organic and learning to focus on single-estate bottled olive oils, often pressing and bottling right on the premises. Now if they learn to market better and exploit the growing international thirst for top-quality single-estate extra virgin olive oils, Greeks hope that their olive oil may secure a place in this growing niche.
Greek producers are beginning to see the value in marketing single-estate oil produced on a small-scale by traditional methods that have been used here for millennia, handpicked, stone-ground and cold-pressed. It is largely because of this new realization that Greece has recently had Europe’s most dramatic increases in organic farming. In the past decade, the production of organic olive oil has more than tripled in Greece and biological olive oils and controlled origin production in Greece are experiencing an astonishing 30% annual growth.
Austrian olive oil guru Fritz Blauel has been a pioneer in this field. Arriving in Greece in the 1970’s as somewhat of an environmentalist, Fritz saw what many have noted before in Greece, that many Greek olive growers have always been producing with traditional methods in an almost naturally organic fashion. Living in the Mani on the Peloponnese, home to the famed Kalamata PDO (EU Protected Designation of Origin), Blauel was well-positioned to enhance and even improve on this tradition. Blauel appreciated the traditional natural methods and saw that with the help of agronomists and proper expertise, the area could exploit this potential and become truly organic. He has done so quite successfully, with tremendous results. Starting in the early 1980’s, his Mani Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Kalamata Gold have become successful exports. His organic olive oil is also sold and available in Whole Foods in the U.S. under their North American brand name of Lapas.
“We saw all this good quality Greek olive oil being sent to Italy so we started off filling individual bottles with selected oil by hand,” says Blauel, “now more than 500 area farms have been converted to organic farming and we’re pleased to have been able to help show them the way.” Like many olive oil producers, it seems almost a religious passion for Blauel and from his early hand-bottling and labeling, they’re now up to 650 tons annual production and still growing.
His oil not only has the fruitiness and fine peppery finish that the region is known for, it’s also all certified organic.
“We can learn something about marketing olive oil from the Italians — and we can keep producing a top-quality product and carve out our own niche,” says Blauel, “this ethos is not only environmentally friendly but we’re able to set an example and show that it can also be profitable.”
In the past decade, olive oil consumption has risen 35% in Europe and more than 100% in North America. As this trend continues, quality, profit and environmentally friendly may well become the mantra that helps Greek olive oil stop being such an unsung hero. In a land of myth, where goddesses saunter down from Mt. Olympus to plant an olive tree, almost anything might be possible…and it may well be that the keys to the future of olive oil production may be being planted – even now – in this very same soil where it all began.