Olio: How Olive Oil Became a Mediterranean Cuisine Staple

July 13, 2020 7 min read

When people think of Italian (or even Mediterranean) food, they might envision pasta dishes, pizza…or lamb, feta, tomatoes, basil, maybe a touch of capers in the mix.

Like a lot of other regional cuisines, though, Mediterranean food can’t be defined by a small handful of ingredients. Truly, the full repertoire of something like Italian, Greek, or even Algerian fare is an expansive yet dazzling array of eats: from nuts, truffles, chickpeas, and chicken to zucchini, eggplant, oregano, cured meats, artichokes (including artichoke cream), and so much more.

Underneath these many ingredients, however, the beating heart of Mediterranean food will always be olive oil…especially in Italy. Far preferred to vegetable oils and even animal fats throughout the entire area, Italians most of all will always choose a fine extra virgin over its other contemporaries. In fact, they’ve done so for centuries…if not millennia!

Olive oil: an Italian cuisine staple

Olive oil has trickled its way into cookery all over the world. And yet, something about it has always remained distinctly Italian. It continues to be a delicious staple in plenty of other Mediterranean cuisines, too; including Spanish, French, Greek, and others.

Part of this, of course, is owed to the Mediterranean climate that olive trees love: the sweetest of weather conditions where Europe, Asia, and Africa entwine around the Mediterranean sea. It’s a place that nourishes olive trees better than anywhere else with hot, dry summers followed by mild, damp winters… all perfectly ideal for olive fruit and oil production.

And indeed, the Mediterranean is the world’s platform for olive oil’s rise to glory. Of all Mediterranean countries though, Italy might be the brightest global icon and standard for olive oil culture. Regions like Lombardy, Liguria, Tuscany, Puglia, Umbria, and others within the country have all become famous for superb olive oil in their own right. Greece, Spain, southern France, and other Mediterranean countries also prominently feature olive oil in their own unique ways. Not surprisingly, olive oil production is a key part of the Mediterranean’s local and global economy, not just its culture.

What’s more, the average Italian consumes almost 14 liters of it every year! Especially in Italy’s cuisine, olive oil is used in practically every aspect of cooking: from frying and roasting to salad dressings and finishing. It’s not just a product or part of culture, it’s part of the fabric of eating itself. Plus, nine of the ten top-producing olive oil countries are Mediterranean: Italy is the second, right after Spain, its next-door neighbor.

But perhaps more than any other food or ingredient (and more so than any other country, Mediterranean or no), extra virgin olive oil retains a venerated, revered status in Italian homes. Some may even “showcase” the best olive oils in their kitchens for all to see. It’s not uncommon for rural Italians to gift or trade their own “homemade” country extra virgin olive oil too, even made from their very own olive trees, to neighbors and family.

And as you’ve probably gleaned from this article by now: Italy loves olive oil! But this can seem a little odd, considering that olive trees aren’t originally from Italy at all.

Is olive oil truly Italian?

Olive oil gets associated with Italian cuisine more than any other. But yes, you heard us right: olive trees (and olive oil, for that matter) aren’t actually native to Italy. So, how does something that seems so thoroughly Italian originate from somewhere else entirely?

Turns out olive trees didn’t have to come too far to reach Italy. They are, in fact, Mediterranean in origin.Some experts indeed trace the tree’s original stomping grounds to nearby regions, but how far it actually traveled, and an exact pinpointed location of origin, is a big mystery to history. In other words: historians are still generally unclear about where olives were first originally domesticated, let alone where exactly they are “native” to.

Some hold that they were originally from Syria, Iran, or even Sub-Saharan Africa, before slowly traveling west into the Mediterranean with domestication and trade. Others claim olives have been Mediterranean all along: only they’re proper to the eastern Mediterranean and countries such as Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey instead  (and in Israel, of course, where mentions of olive trees in the Bible go back for millennia).

One thing is clear about olive oil’s history: sometime in the Bronze Age, olives moved into the western Mediterranean and then further south into Greece and Egypt. There, they took hold as a very important commodity. Artifacts of olive oil production date back to these times and are very prevalent throughout northern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, but especially the Mediterranean. A few centuries later, it’s thought that the Greeks finally brought olives into Italy.

But here’s another shocker for you: not only is olive oil not Italian. When it first came to Italy, it wasn’t considered a food at all…but completely inedible!

Olive oil was not always a food – but why?

The idea of a luxurious olive oil not being properly tasted and enjoyed may sound preposterous. But centuries before olive oil became the decadent condiment it is now, it was more often used as a non-food oil. In fact, for the longest time, olive oil was more commonly burned as fuel or as a lamp oil! Sounds crazy, right?

It’s possible people back then would find it very strange that we consider olive oil such a culinary sensation today! Beside lamp fuel, some types were also used for health, cosmetic, and even spiritual or religious purposes. Whether or not olive oil became lamp fuel, medicine, or something else came down to the grade of oil being extracted from the olive. The easiest grade to extract, the “inedible” grade, was perfect for burning as fuel and could easily be produced in mass quantities. (You can read more about the different grades and types of edible olive oil for cooking here in our blog post.)

Though it would be centuries before olive oil became all the rage it is today, about 3000 years ago the ancient Romans took up olive tree production from Greece when the Greeks first brought them to what is Italy today. It was thought that the Romans were who first really began mastering the art of growing olives for high volume oil production, even if it was mostly for fuel at first.

How Italy became the center of olive oil fame

Many say it was Roman culture that first brought olive oil production into eminence, starting in the Italian region. After the Romans conquered parts of Europe, the olive spread and stayed with many countries and regions, even long after Roman civilization rose and fell. Olive oil eventually became an important commodity in Europe, especially as a lamp oil and fuel. But not as a food…at least, not yet.

By medieval times, however, the importance of the olive (and olive oil) was waning. In the western Mediterranean however (and especially Greece, Spain, Portugal, and most of all Italy), olive oil was on the rise. As cities grew and urban life became more and more valued, homes and streets needed light…and olive oil was the perfect fuel before electricity and gas.

Of all Mediterranean countries that capitalized on the olive tree (with help from the local climate that nourished it so well), Italy topped the list. The country quickly became a central producer and exporter of olive oil. For a long time, the fragrant oil fetched a very high price…and quite a living!

Today the remnants of Italy’s rapid rise to wealth can still be seen in the fine architecture, beautiful countryside, churches, villas, and more in regions known world famously for olive oil production. Similar wealth to this can be seen in other Mediterranean countries, too.

Through the Renaissance period and the centuries that followed, the Mediterranean built its economy and culture on olive oil… though this wouldn’t be the only thing the region would build around olive oil.

Even long after it went out of style when petroleum was discovered, olive oil would soon flourish anew as a culinary sensation… especially when its extra virgin qualities would be developed and discovered!

From fuel to food: the birth of extra virgin

At some point in ancient Italy, crafters of lamp fuel stumbled upon a very new and different dimension to olive oil: its incredible (and edible!) extra virgin quality.

It’s unclear how and when exactly this world-changing discovery of consuming olive oil was made. Its use as a medicine may have provided a gateway to culinary use, but this is especially unclear. What’s certain, however, is how different extra virgin’s creation is from lower grade and inedible oils: using quick cold-pressing techniques and a fine eye for quality. Whoever first extracted extra virgin from olives had to really fine-tune their process, as well as experiment!

Olive oil for lamp fuel, on the other hand, is made using heat and chemicals to extract it. This completely destroys health benefits, flavor, or edibility. To learn all about what sets extra virgin apart from all others, read our blog post here.

One thing’s perfectly clear: the first taste of extra virgin olive oil made such an impression, that many Mediterranean cuisines then adopted it and built all their dishes around the condiment…and not the other way around! Explore the cuisines of most major Mediterranean countries, and you’ll find it’s all the same: whether you visit southern France, Italy, Greece, or Tunisia. Extra virgin olive oil is woven into the very fabric of Mediterranean cuisine, bringing lush, floral, fruity, and nutty flavor notes to every truly authentic regional dish you can taste.

Olive oil’s legacy today

Extra virgin olive oil is now at the foundation of cuisine all over the world, and not just the Mediterranean. But nowhere else (and in no other regional cuisine) is this sumptuous condiment more celebrated, beloved, and ebulliently consumed!

In fact, it’s thanks to extra virgin olive oil that the Mediterranean region (and the Mediterranean Diet today, for that matter!) is globally renowned for some of the healthiest food and lifestyle benefits in the world. Even researchers agree that one of the strongest corner posts for the health-boosting Mediterranean Diet can only be olive oil, owing to its stunning antioxidants and health benefits.

Our French Michelin star chef and partner himself, Dominique Le Stanc, experienced first-hand the dramatic difference in health when he moved from northern France (Alsace) to the French Riviera by the Mediterranean sea. People seemed healthier, leaner…and they definitely ate a whole lot of olive oil!

Olive oil’s legacy today is one of full amazing health benefits and flavor….but only if the olive oil in question is extra virgin olive oil! But it’s also a tale of culture, history, and discovery that will always be Italian and Mediterranean at its very heart.


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