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The history of olive oil
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin; wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC. The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor or in ancient Greece. It is not clear when and where olive trees were first domesticated: in Asia Minor, in the Levant, or somewhere in the Mesopotamian part of the Fertile Crescent.
Olive Oil in Greece through Time
a) Olive Oil in Ancient Greece
In the 8th millennium BC, the Neolithic man had included wild olive fruit in his diet. It is not clear when and where olive trees were first domesticated: in Asia Minor, in the Levant or somewhere in the Mesopotamian part of the Fertile Crescent. Some scientists believe that the first olive trees were planted by the Semite-Hamitic tribes, which inhabited the southern slopes of the Caucasus, the Western Iranian plateaus. Others propose that olive trees were cultivated as early as 6000 BC in Northern Africa, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia. From there, the olive tree and the knowledge of the olive oil production were carried to central and Western Mediterranean countries by Phoenician traders.
In Greece, the history of olive oil is as old as the myths of the Olympus gods. According to archaeological research that took place in islands of the Aegean Sea, fossil olive leaves were found in the volcanic rocks of Santorini and Nisyros islands, dating back 50,000 – 60,000 years. For Greek people, the olive tree has been seen throughout history as a symbol of peace, prosperity, wisdom, victory and the endurance of life itself, evoking feelings of harmony, vitality and health. According to Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, bestowed upon mankind the most useful plant: the olive tree. In the legend, Athena and Poseidon, the god of the ocean, were in competition over who would have the new city-state named after them and become its protector. Poseidon stuck the ground with his trident and gave the Athenians the gift of flowing salt water. Athena planted a seed, which grew to an olive tree on a rocky hill, known today as the Acropolis. She was crowned the winner, as the olive tree provided shelter, nourishment, medicine, heat and trade and the city became known as Athens. The olive tree was worshipped as sacred and its oil was offered to the Gods and the dead. The nutrition, the religion and the art of the ancient Greeks contained elements of the olive. The symbol of the olive tree has very deep roots in Greek tradition, as it symbolizes wealth, health, beauty and abundance and is considered to be a fundamental element of the Greek civilization.
It is estimated that olive cultivation in the Helladic area took place in Crete during the Minoan period, about 3500 BC, as is shown by excavations and findings, such as earthenware jars, recording on tablets, frescos, remains of oil milling stones and decantation basins. The earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to the Early Minoan period, implying the importance of olive oil in the Minoan civilization where it became a principal product representing wealth. Remains of olive oil have been found in jugs over 4,000 years old in a tomb on the island of Naxos. Archeologists claim that the prosperity of the Minoic civilization was very closely connected to the marketing of olive oil. After 2000 BC, the cultivation of the olive tree in Crete was systematic, playing the most important role on the island’s economy. The oil became a multi-purpose product of the Mycenaean Greece (1600-1100 BC) and was a chief export. The first export of the olive oil, not only in mainland Greece but in Northern Africa and Asia Minor as well, started in Crete. Greece was the biggest producer of “liquid gold” in 1500 BCE and the area most heavily cultivated (particularly Mycenae), as the ancient Greeks exported olive trees to their colonies in the western Mediterranean and the oil was used for trade. With the expansion of the Greek colonies, olive cultivation and culture began to spread across the entire Mediterranean basin. Evans informs us about the importance of olive oil of the economic welfare in the ancient Mediterranean by reporting: “When for an unknown reason, in ancient Crete, trade in olive oil declined, Cretans lost their prosperity and many of them emigrated in parts of central Greece and in coastal areas of Asia Minor”.
Up to the late 7th century BC, the ancient Greeks built their homes around the olive tree, but the use of olive oil was limited. The Greek poet Homer (800-700BC) repeatedly mentioned olive oil in his epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” as the “liquid gold” and believed that only heroes and gods used it for their daily body care, such as to rub their bodies with it. The olive tree was associated with athletic competitions held throughout Greece in ancient times. At the Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, athletes were massaged with olive oil in the belief that the wisdom, power and strength of Athena would be bestowed upon them. The winners were awarded olive leaf crowns and olive oil. Ancient Greeks also believed that if you polished a statue of Zeus with olive oil, Zeus would be so honored that he would grant you a long and happy life. The Spartans and other Greeks rubbed their bodies with oil, while exercising in the gymnasia.
It was after the 6th century that people started using olive oil for food. In the 6th century BC, Solon, the great Athenian legislator drafted the first law for the protection of the olive tree, excluding the uncontrolled felling. The olive tree was considered to be so sacred, as cutting a single tree down was met by death or exile. Ownership of an olive tree was not taken lightly. Olives and olive oil were the only permissible exports in his celebrated laws, implying their great importance. Apart from being consumed as part of a daily nutritional regimen, olive oil was also used widely in the production of perfumes and medicines and in daily life for lighting and heating.
Herodotus (500 BC), the Greek historian, states that Evia, in Central Greece, was full of olive trees during a period where olive cultivation was still unknown to Iran and Babylonia. According to him, Athens was the center of olive cultivation. In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, large areas were under olive cultivation and apart from being a food product, olive oil was also used for medicinal purposes. According to the father of medicine, Hippocrates (460-375BC), olive oil was the “great healer”. It was used in ancient Greece for more than 60 pharmaceutical applications and had the ability to heal various ailments, including the healing of skin problems, stomach aches, ear infections and even mental illness. Aristotle (300 BC) argued that the cultivation of olive trees is science. In his History of Animals, he recommends the use of olive oil as a form of birth control, by applying a mixture of olive oil combined with cedar oil, ointment of lead or ointment of frankincense to the cervix.
b) Olive Oil in Contemporary Greece
From the time of Ancient Greece up to the present, the olive has been regarded as the holiest tree of Greece’s land and is directly connected with the country’s culture and nutrition. Nobel Prize winner Greek poet Odysseas Elytis wrote: “Greece is a vine, an olive tree and a boat”. The Olive Tree, “the tree that feeds the children” according to Sophocles, is the protagonist of Greek nature and the olive oil is the protagonist of the Greek diet. Greece, despite its small size, holds the third place in the world in the olive oil production with 52 Greek cultivars, after Spain and Italy. Today, there are approximately 120,000,000 olive trees in Greece, covering an area of approximately 6 million stremmata (1 stremma = 1000 m² / about ¼ of an acre); 80% of the Greek orchard land is devoted to olive agriculture. Approximately 450,000 Greek families are involved in the cultivation of the olive tree and the processing of its fruit all over the country. The average annual production of olive oil in Greece is around 400,000 tones, of which approximately 250,000 are consumed in the domestic market. The Greeks are today the first consumers of olive oil, compared to any other people and the per capita consumption is approximately 20 kilos annually. About 65% of Greece’s olive oil comes from the Peloponnese, while the rest is produced mainly in Crete, the Aegean and the Ionian islands.
Over 80% of Greece’s olive oil production consists of Extra Virgin Olive Oil with excellent chemical and organoleptic characteristics. The aroma, the flavor, but also the color are the elements that make Greek olive oil distinguishable and justly considered to be one of the best olive oils in the world. The ideal climatic conditions for olive oil, such as mild temperature climate, a lot of sunlight and temperatures without great fluctuation, along with the chemical synthesis of the rocky, arid soil and a variety of unique olive trees (such as the well-known Koroneiki) that do not exist in other oil producing countries, contribute to the production of excellent quality Greek olive oil. Additionally, there is a special relationship with the olive tree that in the end is expressed in the production of excellent quality olive oil mainly with traditional, non-intensive cultivation practices. Most production takes place on small farms and in family-run businesses. Respect, special care and attention are given to the olive tree, as it provides occupation and income for more than 500,000 Greek families. Harvesting of the olive fruits is done the minute they are at the suitable stage of ripeness, in order to give the best quality olive oil. It is done with special care, in most cases by hand, so that the olive fruits are not damaged and the quality of the olive oil is not affected, in spite of the fact, that this way is time-consuming, laborious and consequently more costly. The transportation of the olive fruit to the olive press and its elision for the production of olive oil is carried out in a very short time after harvesting, also contributing to an excellent product of high quality.
Greece complies with the highest quality standards in olive oil production of olive with a Greek label. Due to the high importance of olive oil for the people and the economy of the country, the Greek legislation provides for a systematic quality control of specialized organizations to protect the quality of Greek olive oil. There are now 17 Protected Designations of Origin (PDO), each one producing olive oil with distinct characteristics. The most prized Greek olive variety for the production of olive oil, often called the King of the Grove, is the Koroneiki variety, originating from the area of Korone in Messenia, Peloponnese. This variety grows well on mountain slopes and produces very small fruit, with very high levels of polyphenols, the natural antioxidants found in plants that protect the human body against free radical damage. The olive oil of Koroneiki variety has a complex aroma, often with subtle hints of other herbs and vegetation growing in or near the groves. It is a particularly fruity variety, with plenty of grassy tones and also flavors reminiscent of bitter almond and spicy pepper. In addition to its rich flavor and vivid color, the olive oil of this highly prized variety also boasts low free fatty acids (less than 0.3%) and a long shelf-life.