Olive Oil: Liquid gold of the Aegean


by Recep Peker Tanıtkan



In the absence of olive oil, our dining tables and our mythology would both be a great deal poorer. In this article, our travel correspondent reports form the Aegean on am agricultural, comemrcial and culinary tradition that dates back for millenia, and on some of the rites and superstitions associated with it. He also answers some practical questions: How is olive oil made? What are the different varieties? How do you know if it is virgin – or, for that matter, pure?


The clean, dry air is rich in oxygen; the soils are argillaceous and arenaceous; the meadows slope gently up away from the sea towards the southern foothills of Kazdağı (Mount Ida). What better home could the olive tree hope for than the region surrounding the Bay of Edremit, on Turkey’s Aegean coast? Not for nothing have the lands which stretch from Assos to Edremit been described as Turkey’s “olive riviera”.


The grateful tree has rewarded the hospitality of the region with ample fruit, and the local inhabitants have returned the compliment by creating the world’s most delicious oils – low density, golden liquids with a specific aroma and a minimal acidity of only 0.3-0.5 dzm.


Roots in time


Humanity and the olive tree are old friends. Modern archaeological research indicates that olives have been consumed for 8,000 years. Used not only for sustenance but also for healing and skincare, and as a symbol of wealth, the olive probably originated in Mesopotamia. Ancient written sources make clear that olive trees proliferated in this region as well as in the Mediterranean and the Aegean.


The word “olive” derives from the Latin olea and olivum and ultimately the Greek elaia. However, the Turkish name, “zeytin”, comes from the Hebrew zeyt. The Akkads used zeirtum and the Spanish later adopted aseite and aseituna.


Mediterranean trade


Greeks and Phoenicians began to export olive oil to the West Mediterranean in the first millennium BC. The trade was later to spread to all corners of the Roman Empire. It was the Romans who invented the olive press – the method of collecting oil which has been used for 2,000 years. They produced separate types of oil for use in cooking, lighting and baptism.


Jugs used for oil have been discovered at the Palace of King Minos at Knossos, evidencing that olive oil played an important part in the trade of the Cretans in 2500 BC. Today, Cretans are said to consume more olive oil per person than any other group of people, and to have one of the lowest incidences of heart disease.


From tree to oil


Like the many legends which accompany them, olive trees develop slowly but are long-lived – monumental olives can be more than a thousand years old. The wood does not rot easily, and when the tree finally dies, fresh shoots spring from its roots. The leaves are famously dark green on the upper side, silvery underneath. In a two-year cycle, the tree produces abundant fruit one year but there is only a small crop the next.


Oil comprises about a quarter of the weight of each olive. Here in the northern Aegean, while the olives to be pressed for oil are ripening, olives for the table are picked with great care by hand. Many types of oil are produced, distinguishable by their fragrance, colour and acidity as well as by flavour and the manner in which they are obtained.


Natural or refined?


The first oil obtained from the olive by the cold-pressed method is referred to as natural or extra virgin (sızma). It is usually consumed raw in salads and sauces or with boiled vegetables. It brings to mind the oil oozing from the olives as they are stacked and prepared for pressing.


Refined olive oil is obtained by refining olive oils which have a high level of acidity. It is generally favoured in countries unfamiliar with the flavour of oil. Lighter than natural oil in both colour and fragrance, it is also known as light olive oil.  Riviera oil is a special combination of refined and natural oil. Burunyağı ıs the oil left ın the bottom of a pan by olıves pressed to dough ın a stone mıll. This oil is considered very valuable and is used for special purposes.


Sacred variety


Early harvest or virgin olive oil is made by cold-pressing olives collected when still unripe. Since the olives are immature, the amount of oil collected is low, it has a greener colour than other varieties and it fetches a more expensive price. The name virgin may relate to an ancient tradition. In ancient times, olives and the olive tree were considered sacred, and when harvest time came, religious rituals were organised and the first olives of the season were collected by virgin girls.


Classical writers indicate that this was already a centuries-old practice, its origins lost in the mists of time. According to some the ancient Greeks regarded olives as a sacred product which could only be cultivated and picked by virgin girls and boys.


Ideal oil


The ancients had a point when it came to the divine qualities of olive oil. Its uses are almost endless. Contrary to recent belief, olive oil of all types of is ideal for frying, since it burns at a higher temperature than other culinary oils. Easily digested, olive oil can also be flavoured with garlic, onion, basil, coconut seed, rosemary, thyme, peppers or bay leafs, adding to the appeal and variety of the salads, appetizers and meals in which it is used.


A good olive oil obtained by traditional methods can leave a slight sediment at the bottom. It may turn cloudy if chilled – indeed, one way of testing the purity of the oil is pure is to put it in a refrigerator, where it should freeze. Normally, it is best to keep olive oil at room temperature but in a dark place. That is what the people of Edremit tell you - and they should know.





Shrouded in legend


Most people have heard the story of the dove which returned to Noah’s boat with an olive leaf in its beak, proving that the waters had started to recede after the flood - and making the olive branch a symbol of peace. But this is only one of the many tales about olives to be discovered in ancient literature and legend: