The world of olive oil is an odyssey and this article is an attempt to provide an atlas for your journey. It is an exploration of the history and myth of olives and olive oil, the extra virgin standard and its corruption, as well as a how-to guide for spotting high-quality oil. This article is designed to galvanise your interest in the green velvet, but more importantly to impress friends and enemies alike with your abundance of olive trivia.
The Mythology and Religious Significance of Olive Oil
Greek and Egyptian myths, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths, Olive Oil has played a symbolic role in most major religions and mythologies. Yet the olive tree, its fruit and its oil, are not only common but celebrated across pantheons. But why is this the case? Why is the olive sacred? It likely begins with the resilience of the Olive Tree and its widespread presence around the world.
A ripe olive is a favoured snack among various species of birds that migrate back and forth across hemispheres and continents. The seed, however, is hardy and usually impervious to the digestive systems of most birds. And so when they pass their excrement they do so along with the intact seed, which then lands somewhere - along with serviceable fertiliser - and the seed can grow into a sapling and then a tree. Naturally, most of these seeds will be lost but this method of spreading is effective and has resulted in the olive tree dotting countless countries in various climates.
The resilience of the seed is a trait passed onto the tree. The olive tree can withstand harsh and dry climates without much sustenance. It is also capable of enduring destruction. Fire and frost can destroy the tree but in its wake roots are capable of regrowing via green shoots that sprout up through the soil. Finally, its fruit yield grows with every harvest in the initial years of cultivation, with every two years bringing more fruit than the year before. Thus the olive tree is not only a reliable crop but an economically rewarding one.
While it is believed that Palestine was the first to domesticate and cultivate olive groves in the fourth millennium BC, the heartland of the olive tree is considered to be the Mediterranean. The earnings and sales of olive oil were considered the lifeblood of several Mediterranean economies by the third millennium BC. An Italian proverb echoes this, which roughly translates as: ‘he doesn’t have an olive tree to hang himself on,’ a saying used to describe the truly destitute. [Mueller, 2011.]
Olives and the production of oil were seemingly omnipresent commodities in many cultures, so it might have only been a matter of time before they would appear in mythology. Or perhaps it had begun in religion, and from there the reverence was born. With Greece being considered the birthplace of Western civilisation it isn’t surprising that Olive oil makes a few appearances. The capital city of Athens owes its name to an olive tree that was Athena’s gift to King Cecrops, who then awarded the goddess of wisdom the right to name his city. Legend has it all olive trees in that area are direct descendants of Athena’s. Odysseus, in Homer’s legendary The Odyssey, bathed himself in olive oil after becoming shipwrecked, and his battered appearance morphed into the beauty of God. So handsome was he that Nausicaa, daughter of the great King Alcinous, wished to marry him. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, also used olive oil as a main ingredient in her beauty routine.
Using olive oil for beauty care is a practice that endured from ancient times up to today, it still being used as a main ingredient for soaps and moisturisers. In Ancient Greece, olive oil was used as an aphrodisiac as well as a natural performance enhancer for sports. Other customs include baptisms, where the Godfather would cover the baby in olive oil before being washed away, and in marriage crowns of olives were exchanged during the ceremony, as were olive groves in matrimonial arrangements which were typically featured in a woman’s dowry. Priests would pour olive oil on coffins during funerals and it was also used to ward away evil spirits in religious rituals.
And all of this is solely in Greek myth. Olive oil’s significance is present in the Abrahamic religions. Mary Magdalene washed Christ’s feet with olive oil. Islamic prophet Mohammad used so much oil that his clothes were often drenched with it, and the Jewish celebration of Hannukah had olive oil at the centre of its story, where the temple of Jerusalem had only enough oil to light it for eight days. Finally Noah, after the flood, was gifted an olive branch by a dove, a symbol that not only meant God’s forgiveness but also heralded a land of peace, as it is understood that slow-growing olive groves need time and tending to bear fruit.
There were also more sinister customs surrounding the oil. Mueller, writer of the extensive and entertaining 2011 book on olive oil Extra Virginity, states:
During outbreaks of the witch craze, judges and papal inquisitors learned that witches routinely covered themselves with secret salves and unguents, often made with olive oil, which supposedly allowed them to raise storms, destroy crops, and fly off to the Sabbath on their broomsticks, as well as numbing their limbs so they wouldn’t shrink from Satan’s touch.
These are all a few examples of the many that exist within the Abrahamic faiths, whose texts are littered with images of olives, groves of trees, and velvet green oil.
Modern History of Olive Oil
As time passed and kingdoms and empires rose and fell, olive oil's influence persisted though its reverence gradually became less mythological and more mundane. The Roman Empire - a culture that proclaimed olive oil to be as quintessential to their way of life as anything else - dissolved and its former lands split and reshaped by world events. Germanic tribes were one such shaping force, who had introduced the custom of using animal fat to cook and dress foods. Food customs gradually shifted away from the Roman influence and introduced food items that much of the West now use far more than olive oil, namely butter. The two products became counterpoints in increasingly differing diets in the West, so much so that modernity named the traditional, olive-rich diet after the Mediterranean.
The genesis of what we now know as the Mediterranean diet began as a scientific study known as The Seven Countries Study, in which Ancel Keys, an American epidemiologist, studied the traditional diets and lifestyles of the US, Japan, The Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy. His study concluded that it was saturated fats, not fat in general, that was a major contributor to heart disease, and while Greece and Italy had a very high fat intake, their fat was mostly monounsaturated due in no small part to their olive oil consumption. This reflected the lowest rate of heart disease within the study. Whereas the US, on the opposite side of the spectrum, mostly consumed saturated fats from meat and dairy products and so had the highest rate of heart disease.
Throughout the 60s and 70s Keys advocated for Americans to consume less fat by limiting it to 30% of their daily caloric intake, and recommended a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, fish, bread and pasta, and a large amount of olive oil, a set of suggestions he referred to as a ‘Mediterranean style regime.’ This birthed the Mediterranean Diet, with olive oil as its cornerstone. Yet the health benefits of olive oil are only attributed to true extra virgin olive oil, an item that is shockingly rarer than we think.
Olive Oil is a bit of an outlier in the world of oils as it is extracted from the fruit rather than the seed, with seed oil being far more typical. This is why olive oil is considered so pure, it doesn’t require heat or chemicals to make, only a pressing. For such a straightforward process, its estimation of quality is strangely muddled.
On November 13th, 1960, a law was passed by the European Parliament that distinguished fruit and vegetable oils into a series of grades. The highest tier of these grades was named Extra Virgin, a title that remains to this day somewhat opaque in meaning. Mueller  stated:
The law stipulated that extra virgin oil be made solely by mechanical methods, without chemical treatment, and with several chemical requirements, including a maximum of 1 per cent free acidity. The law also announced that such oil “must not demonstrate disgusting odours such as rancidity, putridity, smoke, mould, olive fly and similar.”
An interpretation of this law could easily read as what extra virgin isn’t, rather than what extra virgin is. Not only that but the means of testing oil was vague and borderline subjective, therefore extra virgin was a grade that was far easier to claim than to verify.
It is understood in the olive oil industry that the term extra virgin does follow the above requirements. Extra Virgin is unrefined, chemically balanced, never heated, cold-pressed, and typically only uses olives that have been picked within 36 hours. On top of that the oil is rigorously tested chemically in labs and tasted by a professional panel of olive oil sommeliers. Yet, despite being European law, these standards are rarely enforced.
A Bandit Industry
While the olive oil world has bandits of the traditional wild-west variety - holding producers and farmers at gunpoint and syphoning oil into huge tankers for speedy getaways - criminals of the white-collar type are far more common.
With any food standard or law, there are naturally a few groups that would look to exploit or entirely deceive their respective industries. Yet despite olive oil seeming like an innocuous industry, corruption and abuse of the extra virgin standard is almost the rule rather than the exception.
Oil fraud predates the Roman Empire. Near modern-day Aleppo in Syria, a five-thousand-year-old tablet was found depicting oil investigators, with inscriptions roughly translating as ‘Nuzar olive oil investigation.’ Olive Oil fraud, since then, has both remained a simple criminal endeavour, as well as an incredibly complex one in some cases, with processes that require highly advanced labs and specialists to efficiently make subpar oil seem premium.
According to Extra Virginity, the ‘Made in Italy’ label has been abused to the point that the saying means almost nothing regarding quality and country of origin. The profit of defrauding consumers with fake Italian goods is estimated at €60 billion a year, with four ‘Italian’ products out of ten being imports falsely labelled as Italian. While this number constitutes a wide range of items such as wheat, prosciutto and mozzarella, Olive Oil is one of the main components of this fraudulent engine.
Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, is considered one the main regions for oil smuggling in Italy, where low-grade oil is relabelled and then exported as ‘legal’ Italian olive oil. This is often only the first of a series of steps into an insanely corrupt market. Mueller  summarises:
Generous EU subsidies on olive oil encouraged widespread fraud in many olive-producing nations, particularly in Italy, the historic heart of the oil trade, where in many areas the entire production chain became, in effect, one huge criminal network, with farmers overstating the number of olives they picked, millers inflating the amount of oil they produced, and companies exaggerating the number of bottles they sold. Even olive oil unions got caught up in the scam, pocketing large sums and building lush headquarters in Rome, while neglecting the olive growers and oil makers they nominally represented.
Olive Oil might seem like an industry too frivolous and common to find a thriving underworld, yet Olive Oil fraud can have a net profit that is three times greater than cocaine, attracting entire cartels to form around the industry. And while there is a law that demands a certain standard for olive oil, it is seldom enforced, and so the net to catch these criminals remains large and spacious enough to be mostly non-threatening.
A Trade Worth Saving
With such a corrupt industry that almost yields a 50/50 chance of defrauding the consumer, it could be tempting to avoid Olive Oil altogether. But this article opened with the historical and mythological significance of olive oil because it is sincerely a food worth treasuring and the human race has been saying this for millennia.
It is worth mentioning that few people have tasted truly amazing olive oil. This is because poor-grade olive oil – or ‘Lampante’ (lamp oil) as the Italians sometimes call it – is accessed far more easily than true extra virgin, and because most of us do our shopping in general stores, that almost always exclusively means we purchase stock lampante oils. Yet the difference between these faceless grunt olive oils and the truly premium ones is night and day.
But the multi-layered dilemma of the industry remains: how does one find good olive oil? How does one find a trustworthy product in such an untrustworthy industry? There is good and bad news. The bad first: it requires a little work. The good news: Adya has done it for you.
Avoiding an overly elaborate and facetious amount of self-promotion, our Olive Oil collection can be found here, where we have sought ethical and high-quality producers that earn the Extra Virgin grade.
But we want to do more for you. For the Everyman, one can abide by a few things:
- Taste: Your North Star should always be your tastebuds. If it tastes rancid, it’s rancid, and if it tastes good, it’s probably good quality. But taste is subjective, and while different cultivars of Extra Virgin olive oil can vary in flavour profiles, there are a few commonalities between them. Expect a little bitterness and pungency on the tongue, as well as a good deal of pepperiness that will very lightly sting the back of your throat. Notes will usually be earthy and grassy and accompanied by whispers of floral, fruity or nutty flavours. If tasting raw olive oil leaves you cringing, it’s likely bad. Good olive oil has a punch but it’s not harsh, it shouldn’t leave you in pain.
While it would be amazing if we could sample our oils in grocery stores, we, unfortunately, don’t live in that kind of extra-virgin utopia. And so there are other ways of verifying quality before tasting the oil at home.
- Harvest Date or Mill Name: True Extra Virgin olive oil has a bit of an ego, and it likes to boast about where it came from and how young and vibrant it is. If a label states when the olives were harvested and/or the name of the mill it was pressed in, it means the producer isn't afraid to tell you how old the olives are, and if you don’t believe them, you can verify it with the mill.
- Extra Virgin Label: Your eyebrow might be raised at this point. Didn’t this article state that the Extra Virgin label doesn’t necessarily prove its quality? Yes, it did. But while purchasing extra virgin has a risk of not being a true extra virgin, if you purchase anything under it, you are guaranteed to not be purchasing high-quality oil. So begin with following the extra virgin label at the very least.
- High Price and Pretty Packaging does not mean Quality: While true extra virgin will be more expensive than fraudulent oil – it’s a costly endeavour – don’t be seduced by a premium cost and good design. These two traits are often indicative of quality but they’re not gospel, so don't purchase solely based on them.
- Third-Party Certificate: While certifications of olive oil are scarce beyond the Extra Virgin label, organisations exist to test and maintain standards. Similarly to the harvest date label, if a producer brandishes these legitimate third parties certifications, it is an indicator they are the real deal. Stateside and European third parties are as follows:
- California Olive Oil Council
- Italy’s Department of Origin
- European Union Department of Origin
While olive oil can still be extra virgin and not contain all of the above hallmarks of high quality, it rarely has very few of them, and when in doubt, the taste will guide you.
Producer Trust – Posta Pastorella
Trust might be one of the hardest things consumers can come by in modern times. After all, a good deal of this article has explored an industry that is fraudulent almost to its core. But the sixth and final suggestion this article will leave you with is Producer Trust. Mindful consumers tend to build relationships with trusted producers. If you know that a producer maintains a high quality with one product, they’ll likely maintain a similar standard with others.
The opening of this section was a little tongue-in-cheek regarding Adya Global providing you with a trusted producer without you having to lift a finger. And while we want to make your life as easy as possible, we still implore you to get to know producers conscientiously. One such producer we’d like you to get to know and trust is Posta Pastorella.
The Posta Pastorella guesthouse served as many things for many years. A post office – as the name might suggest – but also a waylay station and horse stables. It was a staple of the Gargano countryside in Eastern Italy. Olives grew wildly there, the Ogliarola Garganica cultivar to be exact, but were not domesticated on that plot until the Pastorella family bought the post office and converted it into a guesthouse. Mr and Mrs Pastorella cultivated and produced wine and olive oil, respectively, and initially had only done so for their love of them. This love, as well as the guesthouse and wine and oil production, was inherited by their sons who operate both to this day. Their groves have remained handpicked the entire fourty years – ensuring the olives are in the best condition for pressing - by familial and local workers and their production output is modest but consistent, as they’ve been working with the same mill for almost the whole four decades.
This is what the ideal olive oil process looks like. Family owned, family run, communal and honest, and it is transparent in a way that 99% of other producers aren’t: not only can you stay at the guest house for an Italian vacation, but you can walk the groves, hold the olives and visit the mill that will crush them, and within twelve hours you can hold a bottle of olive oil in your hand that just that morning was in the form of countless olives dangling from sun-spilling trees. While this article attempted to draw up the architecture of the olive oil world, this example from Pastorella is the architecture of producer trust. Combined, they hope to provide you with the knowledge and inspiration to find out what trusted olive oil tastes like.