CUISINES OF THE WORLD
Olive oil has been the treasure of Greece, past and present.
One sunny October morning, Mayor Giorgos Papanikolaou joined schoolchildren beneath the olive trees on public land in the Athens suburb of Glyfada, where the ground was nearly covered with green netting. Thus began Glyfada’s second annual volunteer olive harvest, which produced olive oil for the needy while educating city children about an important element of Greece’s history, economy and culture: what Homer called “liquid gold.”
Experienced volunteers such as Stavros Giakoumakis demonstrated how handheld electric harvesters knock olives off the trees onto the netting. Later, they washed, crushed and pressed many of the olives in a portable unit set up in schoolyards so children could see olive oil produced right before their eyes. Citizens, volunteer firefighters and students worked until early December to harvest the olives, producing one metric ton of virgin olive oil for free distribution.
Greek olive oil is not usually produced in schoolyards, but rather in modern mills with stainless-steel machinery to wash the olives, crush them, knead the paste, separate the solids from the liquids and then separate the oil from the water and (in some factories) filter the oil. A notable exception is Biolea’s artisanal organic olive mill in Astrikas, Crete. There, the olives are crushed by traditional granite millstones resembling those used for thousands of years and the olive paste is transferred to an updated version of an old-fashioned olive press, where the olive juices run down the sides and the oil is left to separate from the juices naturally.
OLIVE OIL IS USED LIBERALLY IN EVERYTHING FROM MEAT AND SEAFOOD TO VANILLA CAKES AND ORANGE-JUICE COOKIES.
Archaeological evidence shows that olives were first cultivated in Crete around 3500 B.C. and olive oil became a key export in the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. Mythology depicts the goddess Athena winning a competition with Poseidon by producing an olive tree, while Poseidon offered a saltwater spring. Since Athena’s gift was judged more useful, the city of Athens was named for her; she became its patron and the goddess’ tree and its products were considered sacred.
Ancient pots, mosaics, frescoes and jewelry featuring olives and olive trees are testaments of their importance. Ancient Greeks used olive oil not only in their food, but also as an offering to the gods and the dead, in perfumes and lamps, as a medicine and to anoint and clean the bodies of the wealthy, especially warriors and athletes. During the ancient Olympic Games, champions were crowned with an olive wreath. At the Panathenaic Games, prizes included a quantity of fine olive oil equal to the value of four-and-a-half years of an Athenian craftsman’s earnings.
The renowned ancient Greek physician Hippocrates recommended olive oil as a treatment for dozens of conditions from skin problems to ear infections. Today, numerous clinical studies have confirmed a long list of olive oil’s health benefits. For example, oleocanthal, one of the phenolic compounds in olive oil, is an anti-inflammatory agent and an antioxidant that can kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Olive oil lowers total cholesterol, LDL ( bad) cholesterol and triglycerides without reducing HDL (good) cholesterol. If consumed regularly, olive oil may improve calcium absorption, help decrease blood pressure and help prevent osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, skin cancer and depression. Healthy diets high in olive oil can improve control of blood-sugar levels, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and help prevent strokes.
HEALTH AND LUXURY
Some of the healthiest olive oils in the world come from Greece, where many producers are taking pains to maximize the quantity of healthy polyphenols in their oils. For example, Eftychios Androulakis, who produces Pamako ultra-premium mountain extra-virgin olive oil in Chania, Crete, hikes up into the mountains and climbs into his family’s immense olive trees to pluck unripe olives by hand, rather than letting the olives ripen and fall as most do with those mountain
trees. Earlier harvesting catches olives when they contain the most polyphenols, justifying Pamako’s name: “medicine,” in the ancient Greek Linear-B syllabic script.
Also named after a Linear-B term (the one for “olive oil”), E-LaWon prime green extra-virgin olive oil is produced near ancient Mycenae. Its millers skip the routine step of centrifugation in order to reduce contact with water that could wash away many of their oil’s impressive health benefits. For their Luxury extra virgin olive oil, E-La-Won even adds edible gold flakes that float in the oil, further increasing its antioxidant and anti-aging qualities.
Greek companies’ efforts to produce high-quality extra-virgin olive oils and package them in carefully designed, striking bottles for export have led to numerous awards in major international olive-oil tasting and container-design competitions, attracting the attention of gourmet boutiques and fine restaurants worldwide. Multiple award winners such as PJ Kabos Family Reserve and Mythocia Olympia PGI extra-virgin olive oil hail from near ancient Olympia,
THE OLIVES ARE CRUSHED BY TRADITIONAL GRANITE MILLSTONES RESEMBLING THOSE USED FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
while other champions range from Chrisopigi (meaning “fountain of gold”) in Sitia, down south in Crete, up to Kyklopas (or “Cyclops”) Olive Mill in northeastern Greece.
As the world has learned more about olive oil’s health benefits and unique flavors, exports of the liquid gold have increased. Greece is the world’s third-largest olive-oil producer, after Spain and Italy, with the highest percentage of extra-virgin olive oil — approximately 80 percent of all Greek olive oil — in the world. One-third to two-fifths of all Greek olive oil is exported. The rest — more than 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of olive oil per person each year, 16 times what Americans eat — is consumed domestically.
In 2012, 130 million olive trees covered 20 percent of the cultivated land in Greece. Olive oil provided the main source of income for 700,000 Greek families — as well as supplementary income and a year’s supply of oil for far more. Cristina Stribacu of award-winning LIÁ premium extra-virgin olive oil claims her oliveoil tasting lessons began “the moment I learned to walk,” when her mother took her to the local olive mill.
Olive oil is an essential component of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet, with its focus on fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, legumes and unprocessed grains, plus moderate amounts of wine, cheese and seafood and less meat, poultry and other dairy. Greek recipes for beans and lentils and vegetable stews with cauliflower, green beans or peas, contain so much olive oil that they are known as “ladera,” or “oily,” dishes (a compliment). Olive oil is used liberally in Greek kitchens, poured over salads and fish, offered as a dip for bread and included in everything from meat and seafood to vanilla cakes and orange-juice cookies.
For example, moussaka combines olive oil, eggplant, potatoes, ground beef and a béchamel cream sauce. Boureki features sliced zucchini and potatoes, a mild, soft white cheese called mizithra, herbs such as spearmint and parsley, and olive oil. Yemista, or stuffed vegetables, include olive oil in their mix of rice, tomato, onion and herbs stuffed inside hollowed-out tomatoes, zucchini or peppers.
However, olive oil is more than a food. For example, it is also used in oil lamps and the baptism ceremony in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Stribacu explains: “Olive oil has been a part of our everyday life since the Mycenaean period, 3,200 to 3,600 years ago. Thus, we are part of a significant heritage coming from the past straight to the present.”
Look around you in Greece and you will see the olive trees, olives and olive oil that make this clear. In many parts of the country, an exploration of the landscape takes you past rolling hills covered with olive groves, their silvery green leaves shimmering in the sunlight, undulating in the breeze.