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B - 26 : The Fruit that gave us the Word for Oil

Yesterday, we discovered what staple food of Persian Sailors and Soldiers. Today, we are going to explore one of their condiments - olives and their liquid fat - olive oil.

My olives in Chantrou last year

Olives were domesticated in the fertile crescent (probably in today’s Kurdistan) about 7’000 years ago. Olive trees grow well on limestone soil (the predominant rock around the Mediterranean) and are able to endure prolonged droughts thanks to their sophisticated roots and their ability to limit water condensation from their leaves. Old olive trees have roots 6m deep, 12m wide and 30 km long!

Distribution of Olive Trees in the Mediterranean

The Phoenicians were the first people to cultivate olive trees (4’000 BC). By 1’500 BC they began exporting olive oil together with their cedar logs to Egypt. When they colonised the western Mediterranean (Sicily, Sardinia, Spain), they brought olive trees along. Already earlier, olive trees began spreading to neighboring Anatolia, Cyprus and Greece. By the time Phoenicia became a Persian provinve (550 BC), olives were firmly established as part of the Mediterranean diet. Our Persian Sailors and Soldiers consumed olive oil every day. It was easily shipped in large amphoras down in the hull of merchant vessels and used throughout the empire.

Decorated Greek olive oil amphore with scenes from olive harvest

Olive oil did not only become part of the Mediterranean diet. As the only liquid oil at the time, it also acquired cult status. In several religions (Judaism, Zaraostianism and later Christianity) people got annointed and baptised by olive oil. It was also used for illuminating houses and palaces at night and thus gave us the word for oil (oleum in Latin a derivative of olivium)

Roman mosaic showing slaves harvesting olives

Olive oil consumption reached a peak during Roman times when it was shipped and used theoughout the Roman Empire. There was no dish that could be prepared without it. Today, olive oil is consumed on an even larger scale. It is well know for its strong anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and is rich in mono-unsaturated fats (lowers your cholesterol). It is the healthiest oil available. Romans used oils for cooking and lighting only. They did not eat salads for fear of contaminated water when rinsing vegetables. Today, much improved hygene levels have eliminated this threat.

Could you imagine eating a salade niçoise without olive oil?

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