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  • 24The culinary uses of extra-virginolive oilAlan TardiUniversity of Gastronomic Sciences, Pollenzo, Italy


    The cultivation of the olive tree (Olea europaea) and the extraction of olive oil datesback to the beginning of Western civilization. Initially, its primary use as a source oflight and body ointment developed an important mystical/ritual significance. Dur-ing the time of the ancient Romans, olive oil, while retaining its ritual significance,became increasingly important as a foodstuff, forming one of the fundamental ele-ments of the Mediterranean diet. In modern times, however, with more sophisticatedtechnology and deeper understanding of the perishability of olive oil, an entirely newlevel of production quality may be attained resulting in a vastly superior product withincreased sensory characteristics and cultivar-based diversity, which also opens upan entirely new world of culinary applications and considerations.

    24.1 A brief history of the olive

    The olive is one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by man and one of the mostsignificant. Though the actual place of origin of the wild olive tree (Olea oleaster)is not certain, recent research pinpoints the northern Levant area around the borderof present-day Syria and Turkey as the site of the olives earliest domestication andcultivation, which took place prior to 6000 BCE (Besnard et al. 2013). The domes-ticated olive tree (Olea europaea) has larger, less bitter olives with a greater amountof oil than the wild one. Olive pits found in archaeological sites date back approx-imately 8000 years and the earliest evidence of olive oil production, in the form ofmortars and stone presses, was found in present-day Israel, dating to around 4500BCE. Three genetic hotspots of the cultivated olive tree have been identified: theNear East (including Cyprus), islands in the Aegean Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar.

    The Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Handbook, First Edition. Edited by Claudio Peri. 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


    From there, the domesticated olive began to move westward with the expansion ofhuman civilization, mutating and diversifying in the process.

    The domesticated olive was important to the societies that cultivated it from thevery beginning but it took on even greater significance once it arrived in Greece,both on the mainland and on the islands. Olive trees were planted widely throughoutthe island of Crete and commerce in oil likely helped fuel the development of theMinoan civilization which dominated the Mediterranean from around 27001500BCE. The Minoans developed techniques of brining to preserve olives, which madethe fruit easier to export as well as more palatable to eat.

    According to Greek mythology, in a competition held by Zeus, Athena (hisdaughter) was made patroness of the city of Athens for providing the people thegift of the cultivated olive. The olive became an increasingly important elementof the developing Greek society and was subsequently used as a colonizing toolas Greek civilization expanded throughout the Mediterranean area. It is probablethat the olive was already present on the Italian peninsula when the Greeks arrivedthere, as they began establishing outposts of Magna Grecia in southern Italy andSicily (as well as southern France) in the early eighth century BCE, they broughtwith them more sophisticated methods of olive cultivation and oil extraction, aswell as an enhanced appreciation of both the practical and symbolic significance ofthe fruit and its various uses.

    The cultivated olive sank its roots deeply in the propitious environment of thecentral Mediterranean area and spread throughout the Lower Peninsula. The Greekpredilection for the olive was adopted by the ancient Romans (along with most ofthe other key aspects of Greek culture), becoming in turn a colonizing tool of theirexpanding empire and an increasingly significant economic commodity, as well asan important part of Ancient Roman cuisine.

    As cultivation of the olive tree spread to numerous different climates and terrains,the plant continued to mutate and diversify into a multitude of distinct cultivars.

    24.1.1 Significance of the olive in ancient times

    Unlike other fruits and vegetables that attained a place of importance in both thecuisine and the culture/mythology of a given human society, the olive was initiallyprized for qualities other than its taste and nutritional value. The olive (especiallythe wild Olea oleaster) contains an extremely high amount of oil. One of the earliestand most important uses of olive oil was as fuel for lamps. The property of preserv-ing the flame, thus harnessing and humanizing the energy of fire to produce light,undoubtedly conferred an elite status to this plant. In ancient Judaism, oil obtainedby using only the first drop from a squeezed olive consecrated by the priests, wasused to light the lanterns in the Temple.

    Thanks to its natural beneficial properties, another early use of olive oil was as anointment for the body and hair. Olive oil was used as a basis for perfume worn by theupper classes in ancient Egypt and was also used in the preparation of mummies (dueto environmental conditions, Egypt was not able to grow olive trees and imported


    much of its oil from Palestine and Crete). In ancient Greece, athletes (who enjoyedan almost religious status) were ritually rubbed with olive oil before practice andcompetition, and winners of Olympic contests were crowned with a wreath made ofwild olive branches.

    Practical applications with mystical implications were combined in thewidespread use of olive oil for anointing, which represents the introduction orexistence of a divine influence in a person.

    Olive oil has long played an important role in the three principal religions of theWestern world. In Judaism, the festival of Hanukah celebrates the miracle of a smallquantity of oil sufficing to keep the Temple lanterns lit for eight days until more couldbe obtained. Anointing with oil stems from the Old Testament and indicates thatsomeone or something is being set apart for a sacred task or duty. In Christian ritu-als, priests are anointed with chrism oil during ordination, children (and anyone elseentering the faith) are anointed at baptism, and the dying are anointed with blessedoil. In fact, the name Christ literally means the the anointed one and both the Oldand New Testaments are filled with references to the olive and olive oil. They are sig-nificant for Muslims as well: God is the light of the Heavens and the Earth. His lightis like a lantern inside which there is a torch; the torch is in a glass bulb which is likea bright planet lit by a blessed olive tree, neither Eastern nor Western, its oil almostglows, even without fire touching it, light upon light (Al-Hilali and Khan 2013).

    In ancient Middle Eastern societies, culinary uses of the olive were trumped bypractical (fuel, ointment) and religious (anointing, mythology) ones but this beganto change in ancient Greece, where the more favourable environment combined withmore sophisticated methods of olive cultivation and transformation led to products ofa higher quality and more pleasing taste. At the same time, an appreciation of cuisineand gastronomy took a big leap forward. Rather than being reserved exclusively fora small group of nobles, in ancient Greek society, festive meals were enjoyed by agreater number of people than ever before and a distinctly Mediterranean culinaryculture began to take shape.

    24.1.2 Culinary applications of olive oil in the Mediterranean Basin,from ancient times to present

    In ancient Greece, olive oil was used as a cooking medium. Mixed with honey, saltand vinegar, it was used as a dressing for vegetables. Salt-cured olives were alsoregularly consumed.

    As the cultivation of the olive spread throughout the expanding RomanEmpire first Italy, then France, Spain and the entire Mediterranean Basin theculinary use of olive oil began to expand as well. Both De Agri Cultura by MarcusPorcius Cato (234149 BC) and Natural History by Pliny the Elder (circa AD7779) contain detailed information about the cultivation of olive trees and themaking and uses of olive oil. De Re Rustica, the 12-volume compendium offarming written by Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (AD 470 circa), a Romanborn in Spain who owned several farms in Italy, includes extensive information


    about olive tree cultivation as well as a number of recipes, many of which includeolive oil (Faas 2003). De Re Coquinaria, compiled sometime around the late fourthto the early fifth centuries AD and attributed to Apicius, is considered to be theearliest cookbook in existence. While here, as in Columella, olive oil is a frequentingredient that pops up in many of the recipes, it is used principally in one oftwo ways: in the process of cooking, to add fat to and help emulsify ingredients,or as a dressing, usually mixed with other ingredients like honey, vinegar andpulverized herbs or spices, and poured over cold (either cooked or raw) vegetables.It is not indicated for use as a condiment at table. The chief condiment of ancientRoman cookery was the ubiquitous Garum, a pungent liquid made from anchoviesfermented in salt. A modern version of the ancient Roman Garum called colaturadi alici is still made and used to this day in and around the town of Cetara in theregion of Campania, Italy.

    24.2 Old versus new: expanded culinary possibilitiesoffered by excellent extra-virgin olive oil

    The olive oil has played a significant role in health, nutrition and religion/mythologyin the Middle East and Western Europe from the dawn of human civil


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