Used throughout the ages to anoint kings and religious leaders, olive oil has long been the symbol of strength and longevity. The olive tree and its fruit are predominant in culture, theology, and medicine. The oil from the olive was one of the very first products manufactured by mankind. It offered light itself when ancient cultures used to fill the continuously burning lamps in their sanctuaries because it burned so slowly and emitted little smoke.
Olive oil became the base for the most highly prized soaps and perfumes and was indispensable for dressing wool before spinning. The versatile liquid was used as a salve on the chapped skin as a shield against bacteria on wounds and was an effective remedy for an upset stomach. Most importantly, those first olive crops provided endless culinary possibilities for enriching food with the marvelous oil they yielded.
Olives were first thought to be cultivated in Syria about 6,000 years ago where they were not only a prized harvest at home but a valuable trading commodity. The use of olives and their oil spread rapidly around the Mediterranean and across the ancient world, their value gaining momentum as other cultures learned to grow the hearty trees. By the time they were established in Egypt, they were so highly thought of that the powerful Tutankhamen was crowned with olive branches within his tomb.
Cold-pressed, extra virgin is the best you can buy, but olive oils of that type vary greatly in taste. The nuances of flavour can only be determined by sampling a number of extra virgin oils from different countries. Olive oil is like wine in that it derives its flavour from the environment in which the trees are grown. The flavours are so numerous and complex that olive oil producers have devised a glossary of tasting terms much like what we have come to expect from vintners.
Just as in ancient times, this wonderful commodity is now practically indispensable in our diet. Olive oil is earthy, it is complex, and a superb culinary partner for countless foods. I have always found abundant uses for it in my kitchen: but understanding its background, I enjoy a slightly ceremonial feeling when using this timeless ingredient. Here is food that shouldn’t be taken for granted. After all, if it was the crowning touch for kings, it has to be something special.