Olives and Olive Oil Information

The Egyptians were using olive oil as early as 3,000 BC, most sources report, but in “Rice, Spice and Bitter Oranges”, 1967, Lia Perl writes:

The Egyptians got olives, along with apples and pomegranates ( “apples with grains” ) from the Hyksos, a nomadic Asian people who conquered Egypt in 1,800 BC, using horse-drawn chariots to overpower the pedestrian Egyptians, and ruled for about 150 years.


From one large olive tree, a family could obtain a year-round crop of ripe and unripened olives, both edible, and as much as a half ton of olive oil, all the fruit and oil a family could use. Oil from the first pressing was used to baste roast meats, dress vegetables and make sauces. The olives were pressed again to produce an oil used for moistening the skin and dressing the hair. A third pressing and a fourth yielded oil for lamps and to fuel stoves.

The Egyptians developed from the wild olive, a less bitter olive for the table. Frescoes at the tomb of Ti, a royal official of the fifth dynasty, shows they force-fed geese to create foie gras of their enlarged livers. The Greeks pursued the practice that is now regarded as a classic dish of the Alsace.

Olive oil was essential to many aspects of Greek daily living. It was used as a dip for bread, in place of butter; it was a fat and a seasoning agent in cooking; it was used to rub down the body in place of soap; and it often served as lamp fuel. Of all the ravages of war during ancient times, the ones the Greeks feared most was the destruction of their olive groves. Since the trees took more than a decade to bear fruit a burned away grove of olive trees was an almost irreplaceable loss.

Today Spain outstrips all other countries in the production of olives, with Italy running a close second. Twenty years may pass before the olive tree matures and bears fruit, but to compensate for this the olive is one of the longest-living fruit trees. Only the ripe (almost black) olives are used for oil. These are harvested in December or January. Green, or unripe, olives are harvested in the fall, but both varieties must be pickled or otherwise processed before eating. The fresh green olive has a violently disagreeable taste.

In some rural Mediterranean areas olives are crushed just as in ancient times, between two large stones, to extract oil. Often the grindstone is turned by a blindfolded mule.

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