Olive Oil, Oregano and Lemon are probably the 3 main ingredients that Hellenic (Greek) cuisine is identified with. In my last writing I spoke about Oregano, so now let’s take a deeper look into Olive Oil and its relationship with Greek cuisine and culture. We will touch on its origins, teach you about the different varieties of olive oil, and give you tips for cooking and seasoning with Greek Olive Oil. We will also have some fun looking into its healing and medicinal properties both in ancient times and today.
Olive Oil is said to be one of the greatest assets of the ancient world and at times worth its weight in gold. It offered humanity the gifts of health and wealth. Olive branches have been used as a symbol of peace since antiquity. After battles Olive Trees were given as an agricultural offering to the lands defeated.
It is said the Olive tree originated most likely in Ancient Greece, although some experts trace it back to Asia Minor. There is no doubt it is native to the Mediterranean basin. Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of man’s relationship with the pitted fruit, popular use most likely began in the southwest Mediterranean. Olive pits and wood fragments have been found in tombs throughout this area, some dating as far back as 5000 years. Recent Archeological evidence in Israel shows that the Olive was pressed into oil as far back as 6000 BC. It was brought to Italy and Spain by the Greeks. It had already spread to North Africa by the time the Romans arrived. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers and missionaries introduced the olive to the New World, planting trees in Mexico, Argentina, and California, where it continues to grow today. Today, The USA’s interest in Olive Oil makes America the 2nd largest importer outside of Europe. America only produces 0. 5% of the world’s olive oil. California is starting to grow more complex olives due to its popularity.
Athena’s gift- The olive tree was so important it is how the city of Athens, back then a city-state obtained its name. According to many Ancient Greek Philosophers including Plutarch and Herodotus, Athena was chosen as name sake of the city when she offered the Olive Tree to the city. When Zeus (ruler of the Ancient Greek Gods & Goddesses) was deciding who would be the ruler and watch over this key city-state in Ancient Greece, the competition was between the god Poseidon and the goddess Athena.
Athena offered the original olive tree and it was planted on a rocky hill that we know today as the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree. Athena was a warrior deity, but recognized the power of peace. Thus, wreaths of Olive branches were crowned on the heads of Olympic champions and great warriors.
Poseidon offered a beautiful spring of water. This would be a gift to the people in time of drought. However, it was salt water and not able to be consumed. The Olive Tree had many possibilities as you can see below.
Olive Oil’s many uses in the Ancient World-
Medicine- Hippocrates said, Olive Oil could heal. According to Hippocrates, “the father of medicine”, olive oil could heal numerous ailments, among them mental illness, and what Hippocrates charmingly referred to as “the diseases of women”.
Athletics- The Spartans, a breed of Greeks that lived to be warriors rubbed themselves with olive oil while exercising in the gymnasia and prior to competitions. It protected their skin from abrasions and the elements.
Cosmetics- It was also used as a cosmetic in all of the Hellenic city states. Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin during evolution of the Roman Empire. It not only kept skin soft and subtle, but was used as a base for essential oils in perfumes.
Spiritual- It is still used in many religious ceremonies from Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In Ancient Greece it was used by priests to consecrate the dead. The trees were so sacred that those who cut one down were condemned to death. Today it is the preferred oil used in Christian baptisms, especially Greek Orthodox Christians. It is still used to anoint priests. The Greek name for Christ is Kristos which means “the anointed one”.
Light & Heat- It offered light when burned, allowing people to see more clearly at night. Burning oil for heat is still done today in many parts of the country and world.
Wealth- The Minoans of Crete were among the first cultures to achieve prosperity on olive oil, and Crete continues to be an important olive production area today.
Cuisine- We know olive oil was used widely by Ancient Greeks or Hellenes as well as Romans in cuisine. It is as complex as wine and has rich as well as subtle flavors.
Modern Healing Properties- Anti-inflammatory and Pain- Studies revealed that a compound in the oil, called oleocanthal, prevents the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes – the same way NSAIDs (Ibuprophen and Aspirin) work.
By inhibiting these enzymes, inflammation and the increase in pain sensitivity associated with them is dampened. The more peppery the olive oil is on the throat is directly related to the amount of oleocanthal it contains.
Many people will have 1 to 3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil a day to aid with inflammation due to arthritis or stiff, painful joints.
Types of Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil Comes from virgin oil production only, and is of higher quality: among other things, it contains no more than 0.8% free acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste, having some fruitiness and no defined sensory defects. Extra-virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries; the percentage is far higher in the Mediterranean countries (Greece: 80%, Italy: 65%, Spain 50%).
Strong Extra Virgin Olive Oil is wonderful for cooking fish, meat and making marinades or to simply drizzle on foods. My favorite thing is to have the first press Olive Oil that still has the pulp in it. Think about olive oil as you would think about wine. Use different olive oils for different purposes. This olive oil is an equal complement to other strong flavors like peppers and garlic.
A medium intensity Extra Virgin Olive oil is great for dipping and putting on bread and appetizers and used in dressings as it doesn’t overpower. It also complements vegetables and potatoes. Instead of butter try olive oil. We love it in vinaigrette or sprinkled on various steamed vegetables and on baked potatoes.
A mellow late harvest extra virgin oil could be used in baking a cake or in condiments. Often cookies made in bakeries in Greece use olive oil instead of butter.
Regular Olive Oil is good for frying and sautéing.
Excessively heating olive oil will evaporate the alcohols and esters that make up its delicate taste and fragrance. Use a less expensive olive oil that doesn’t have much flavor to begin with if you want to fry with it, add a more flavorful olive oil after cooking or at the table. You can also try mixing another vegetable oil that is made to take more heat with olive oil. It will give you the rich flavor of olive oil along with the lightness of the other oil.
Storing and Preserving Olive Oil- When olive oil is exposed to oxygen, light, and heat, it is subject to oxidation and may become rancid. Proper storage can prevent this. Depending on the quality of the oil and on how it was made, extra virgin olive oil in a sealed bottle may last from 3 months to 2 years.
Storage- As soon as you open the bottle, the oxidation process accelerates and the oil will degrade fairly rapidly. Make sure you keep your oil in a closed bottle, in a dark container or closet, away from sources of heat like your stove or light. You do not have to refrigerate it, although refrigeration will not hurt the oil.
Cooking with Olive Oil- One common false myth is that heating olive oil will make it saturated or trans-fatty. This is not true. As far as making a saturated fat, according to Dr. A. Kiritsakis, a world renowned oil chemist in Athens, in his book Olive Oil from the Tree to the Table -Second edition 1998, all oils will oxidize and hydrogenate to a tiny degree if repeatedly heated to very high temperatures such as is done in commercial frying operations. Olive-pumice oils and virgin olive oils are both highly monounsaturated oils and therefore resistant to oxidation and hydrogenation. Studies have shown oxidation and hydrogenation occurs to a lesser degree in olive oil than in other oils. But in any case, the amount of hydrogenation is miniscule and no home cook would ever experience this problem.
You cannot make a saturated product like margarine at home by heating olive oil or any other vegetable oil in a pan. It takes long hours of cooking and high temperatures etc to do so.
Olive oil is the corner stone of the healthy Mediterranean diet. Olive oil can be used for sautéing, browning, and stir-frying, deep frying and as an ingredient in marinades and sauces such as mayonnaise, pesto or stand alone as a condiment and drizzled over various dishes form main courses to sides. It is also used for baking in breads and sweets. There is nothing more delicious then dipping a fresh piece of homemade bread into a flavorful rich olive oil. You can even infuse your oils by soaking herbs and peppers to add flavor. I enjoy olive oil infused with Rosemary. It adds a beautiful flavor to the oil.
While I do not promote a particular brand of olive oil I do favor Greek Olive oils due to the mature trees and the nutrient rich soil of Greece. I admire and support the organic farming techniques and care given to the trees by local farmers in Greece that has been going on for thousands of years. Kali Orexi- Enjoy!
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