Olive oil through history

In the folds of the rugged bark of the olive tree one can read a history that harks back over thousands of years and is inextricably linked to our sea.

The olive plant is a very important symbol of the Mediterranean. The history of the olive tree, its fruits and the oil produced from them, in fact, is intertwined with the history of the ancient civilizations that lived at the confines of this sea and through which these people traveled, creating new routes, new harbors and new markets.

This interweaving of stories has been ongoing for over 7,000 years and continues to the present day, where oil still plays a very important role in our daily lives.

As a testimony to the importance that the olive tree and its oil have had over time and to pay homage to this wonderful plant and its fruits, in 1992, the Carli family decided to create the Olive Tree Museum Carlo Carli, to offer visitors a unique and original experience, discovering all the aspects linked to this tree, its cultivation and its fruits.

The journey of oil and the olive tree

To begin our journey of discovery of the olive tree, it is impossible to distance ourselves from the Mediterranean. Cultivated in the lands washed by this sea, the olive tree spread from the coasts of Syria and Palestine to the Pillars of Hercules. The journey of the oil begins, in fact, from Tyre of Phoenicia. The olive plant kept in this city in the temple of the god Melqart, Phoenician god of vegetation, navigation and colonial expeditions, identifiable with the more famous Hercules for the Greek civilization, was transported by sea to Cadiz.

Following the spread of the olive tree, oil from its fruit also started to be produced in various areas of the Mediterranean. Recognized as a valuable product even at that time, merchants from various civilizations crossed the sea and desert to trade it. The oil, transported in amphorae or in very precious vases of handcrafted glass paste, thus reached various cities where it was used in cooking but also for religious rituals as an ointment. 

The Mediterranean, cradle of the greatest civilizations in our history, is the place to which it is possible to trace the birth of the olive tree, the oldest plant cultivated by man.

Greece, land of sacred olive trees

Given its very ancient origins, it is not surprising to find numerous myths relating to the olive tree that introduce it into the human imagination of our times. One of the best known Greek myths, in particular, attributes the birth of the first olive tree to the goddess Athena. Legend has it that Poseidon and Athena, competing for the sovereignty of Attica, challenged each other on who would offer the most beautiful gift to the people of Athens. Poseidon made the horse rise from the ground, fast and strong, an animal able to help the Athenians during their battles. Athena, on the other hand, by striking a rock with her spear, caused the first olive tree to spring forth from the earth, which was very useful for the population because it was so extremely versatile. Thanks to its fruits, the Athenians could: illuminate the night, medicate wounds and feed the population. Zeus, judge of the challenge, chose the more peaceful element: the olive tree, thus attributing the victory to Athena, who became the goddess of Athens.

This narrative shows how the history of the olive tree is indeed long-lived. Various studies demonstrate that this plant arrived in Greece in very ancient times, around 4,000 years ago, and numerous historical findings tell of the importance of the olive tree and oil for this civilization, at every stage of its evolution and in countless sectors. In the kitchens, at the bath, in gymnasiums, at sporting events and even at funerals.

Stored in amphorae with a rounded shape and fitted with two handles, the refined oil was awarded as a prize to the winning athletes in competitions.

Oil arrives in Italy

In Italy, where oil still plays a key role, how did the olive tree and its oil arrive? The first appearance of the olive tree in Italy dates back 3,500 years, but this product started becoming more widespread around the seventh century BC, thanks to the efforts of Phoenician and Carthaginian merchants and to the Greek settlers.

Here, in the Italic cities of Magna Graecia, oil was used in various ways: not only in food, but also in cosmetics, in religious rituals, as a medicine, for the health of the body and for illumination. Oil is an indispensable resource in everyday life, to say the least. Given the increasingly important role of oil, soon, Etruscans and the other Italic peoples began to learn from the Greek and Phoenician merchants the techniques for cultivating olives and extracting oil from their fruit. This is how countless olive groves were born in Italy and when oil started being produced there.

The diffusion of oil in the Italic regions is fundamental for the internal commerce that became more and more active.

The Pillars of Hercules, oil in the Iberian Peninsula

Another very important stage in the journey of the olive tree is undoubtedly its arrival on the Iberian Peninsula. In the 8th century B.C., Phoenician merchants brought olives and oil to the Mediterranean coast of this area, which were essential for trade throughout the Iberian Peninsula. It was in fact the Phoenicians who founded the city of Cadiz, a bridge between the Mediterranean and the local cities, and it was here that merchants brought not only oil, but also ceramics, ivory, jewelry, perfumes and luxury goods in order to buy metals, of which Spain was abundant: copper, silver, gold...
It was also thanks to this intense activity of exchange that the Iberian Peninsula became the most important oil-producing province in the Mediterranean.

Have you ever heard of ‘Monte Testaccio’ in Rome? This hill was created artificially and can be traced back to the transport of oil from the Iberian Peninsula. The fragments of the oil amphorae used for the transport of oil have in fact been responsible for forming this unique monument.

Liguria and its terraced farmland

Coming back to Italy, when we talk about olives and oil, one region in particular comes to mind: Liguria. Although the structure of the region, with its wide valleys that descend steeply from the Ligurian Alps towards the sea, is not exactly conducive to the cultivation of this plant, over the centuries man has demonstrated his ingenuity and skill by laying the foundations for building the Liguria that we recognize today.

In fact, thanks to a colossal work of terracing, walls were built on the Ligurian hills to contain the land and allow the cultivation of olive trees.

On the other hand, Liguria enjoys an extremely favorable climate for the cultivation of olives, with mild, humid winters and hot, dry summers.

It was on these terraces that the first Ligurian olive groves were born, planted by monks who usually erected a shrine with a sacred image to protect the cultivation. Always to the monks is attributed the merit of having transmitted all the knowledge in the field of the cultivation of the olive tree to the Ligurian population.

The importance of the olive tree in Liguria is also testified by the words of the Ligurian poet Giovanni Boine, who in 1911 wrote, “Our monuments are not in the squares of our cities, they are in our strips”. It is precisely the centuries-old olive trees that characterize, strip by strip, the entire Ligurian territory.

Oil, an essential element of the Mediterranean diet

Oil is closely linked to the Mediterranean in two ways: it has changed its history, but it has also characterized its diet. In fact, this golden nectar is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, the dietary style followed in various countries that have this sea as their border.

A primary source of unsaturated fats, extra virgin olive oil has extraordinary properties from a nutritional point of view. Thanks to its lipidic composition and to the presence of antioxidants, it has, among other qualities, a beneficial action in the prevention of diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and it is useful for the health of the intestine and of the immune system, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. Needless to say, it is a veritable treasure trove of virtues! It is no coincidence that olive oil enjoys a privileged position in the food pyramid. This model of healthy and balanced diet, in fact, has this food product as its very foundation, a food that can be said to be the king of the Mediterranean diet. 

The gifts of the olive tree: its use over time

As we have seen over the centuries, throughout its evolution, this oil has been used in various sectors. In Roman times it was used as fuel for lighting, as an ointment to be used before sporting activities to protect the skin from the sun and promote hydration, as a medicine to promote the healing of wounds or as an excipient to treat ulcers, colic or fever. Moreover, the best quality oil is used not only in cooking, but also for religious offerings and for producing perfumes.

Some ancient uses of oil have been maintained over time and we’re not just referring to cooking! Olive oil is in fact widely used in cosmetics to produce, in particular, products for body care and hair care given that it has moisturizing, emollient, soothing and elasticizing properties and is an excellent ally for relieving skin irritations and giving vigor and strength to the hair.

If you are curious about the history of the olive tree and its oil, we are waiting for you in Imperia, for a visit to our Olive Museum Carlo Carli, where you can take a wonderful journey along the Mediterranean to discover our roots.