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E + 16 : Gallipoli and the Time before Petrol

The Photo is not from our drone - we were not allowed to us it - it is from a local restaurant

Petroleum and other fossil fuels are so omnipresent today that we hardly give a thought to how the days looked before we got access to them. The mass production of petroleum started only a 150 years ago when oil sources close to the surface were discovered in Pennsylvania, US, in 1857. Before oil could be used, the chemical process of refracting had to be invented. It allowed to split oil in its different components. The short hydro-carbon chains came as gas (Methane, Ethane), slightly longer chains gave us kerosene and petrol, followed by diesel, then the even longer chains for heavy diesel and heating oil, and the longest one were tar and asphalt.

Early advertisment for Home Light Oil from the USA

John D Rockefeller integrated oil production and refining horizontally and introduced lamp oil to the market in 1870 when he set up Standard Oil. He had a product but no customers. The combustion engine was not invented yet. We were still in the age of steam, both on sea and on land. Rockefeller marketed his new product as lamp oil first – to bring light to every living room in the evening. It was a time when people had to go to bed when it was dark. Candles and olive oil for lamps were products only the wealthy could afford. Petrol lamps in every home helped children to do their schoolwork, allowed people to work during the long, dark winter months and helped spread literacy and political participation. People would not have been able to read newspaper without petrol lamps.

One of the 31 underground olive mills in Gallipoli - all carved into limestone

4’500 miles to the east, the discovery of petrol had a profound and not so welcome impact. For centuries, Gallipoli in Puglia had been the centre of olive oil production for burning in oil lamps. Its big palaces are testimony to the profitability of this trade. But now it got competition from petrol which was 15 times cheaper and considerably easier to handle. We love the olive oil’s high viscosity when we use it for salad. But when you need to refill a lamp, a faster flowing liquid with lower viscosity is preferable. It is also easier to clean.

Painting from 1798 - the ships in the harbour are loaded with barrels of olive oil and soap

There were 31 underground olive mills in Gallipoli who processed olives for 8 month of the year. During the summer months, the production was halted. The young men who did the pressing were needed for the sailing season (mid-June to mid-September). Olive oil made for burning was prepared differently than we make it today. After harvest the olives were stored for one month at least to acquire additional acidity from exposure to oxygen. Acidic olive oil is less tasty for consumption but burns and flows better. We love our olive oil with as little acidity as possible thus press it immediately after harvest.

Who would have thought that most of this soap

was once made in Gallipoli?

It is said that 50 commercial sailboats fully stocked with olive oil left Gallipoli’s harbor every day. The oil was exported to France, Spain, England and the Nordic countries and often the only source of illumination – candles were so expensive, you needed to be a super-rich to afford just a single one. Olive oil was not only exported in its liquid form. Gallipoli also produced wet soap with the ash of olive and almond trees. Wet soap was exported to places like Marseille where it was recombined with other soaps. Fragrance and colors were added to make the big blocks of Savon de Marseille which we still use today.

View on the Norman Castle which the Spanish converted into a Artillery Fortress

Gallipoli is a real jewel. It has now been discovered by younger tourists who flock to the town every summer. At night, the town is a bee hive. It’s Spanish look and feel make it an attractive place for dinner and drinks and reminded us of Tripani and Syracuse in Sicily. It has a beach though that the other two towns cannot match.

Gallipoli's spectacular down town beach - primarily used by the locals

Most people think that Gallipoli started as a Greek colony like neighboring Taranto. It is an Illyrian settlement though from the time when Illyrians settled Italy’s southern Adriatic coast. Having travelled through the karst mountains of Croatia and Herzegovina, I fully understand why the Illyrians settled here. Their territory was even more inhospitable than Greece. Wrote about this in my blog (C – 30).

Not a party town but perfect for drinks and dinner

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