Why The Olive Fruit is so Important to Greece – and to You

by Michael Gimm Holdensen

The Olive Fruit is a great treat and the olive tree is so beautiful. We owned a small one ourselves before we left Denmark and started our new life as digital nomads. But did you know how important it is for Greece?

We’ve travelled around the Peloponnese for three months and a month in Crete visiting amazing places. Here we have seen that everything from the olive tree has enormous importance to the Greeks.

The Greeks do not have cows or large fields where rape or sunflower is grown for oil production. So their fat comes mainly from olive oil.

I decided to do this post because we love all the good stuff from the olive tree. Both the tasty olive oil and the varieties of fruit. But also olive tapenade for tapas and sandwich spread.

At the bottom of this post, I’ll talk a bit about how to care for the tree. But I think you should know the story of the tree first. It will probably deepen your love for it.

the olive fruit form Athenas Olive tree

Painting from Louvre, France: “Dispute de Minerve et de Neptune pour donner un nom à la ville d’Athènes”. By Hallé, Noël (1748)

The myth of the Greek olive tree

It’s pretty certain that olive trees existed many years before people started using them for production. The first places they grew were around the Mediterranean at Peloponnese and Crete. But also areas like Cyprus, Syria and Palestine. The best story, or myth, we have heard is that of Athena. 

Athena was the goddess of war and the daughter of Zeus. The myth says that she quarrelled with Zeus’ brother, the god of the sea, Poseidon, over who should rule what later came to be called Athens. You can probably guess who won the argument…

Zeus ordered that a contest decide it between the two. Athena and Poseidon met on the mountain where the Greek gods lived, Mount Olympus, and showed the city’s inhabitants what each could offer them.

Poseidon struck his trident into the ground, and saltwater came up out of the ground. Athena sowed a seed and up came a magnificent olive tree with strong branches and delicious olive fruit. As the inhabitants already lived by the sea, the choice was easy, and the city was named Athens after the goddess of war, Athena.

The myth of the Greek olive tree was born, and it has been almost sacred ever since, strongly associated with all aspects of Greek life and culture.

oldest olive tree in the world

Ancient Olive Tree, Ano Vouves on Crete.

How old can an olive tree get?

The world’s oldest olive tree is in Crete. Or so the Greeks claim. It’s between 3,000 and 5,000 years old and stands alongside a small Olive Museum, about a 30-minute drive west of Chania. 

There is also an olive tree in Jerusalem of about the same age, which they claim is the oldest. Who is right is uncertain, but they are both ancient.

We saw the tree along with many of the other sights in Crete. And although it is “only” a tree, it is pretty impressive that it has survived for so many years. It’s a testament to the tree’s durability.

Not only is the tree still alive, it still produces olive fruits that are considered to be amongst the finest in the world. 

Over time, the tree itself has taken on the shape of a sculpture, with the stem having disappeared. Nowadays, only the outermost part remains.

How to figure out how old an olive tree is?

I was taught that you could tell the age of a tree by counting the number of rings – once it has been chopped down. But with olive trees, there’s an excellent rule of thumb that means you don’t have to cut it down first.

If you are of average size and can hug the tree and reach your hands on the other side of the tree, it is about 150 years old. A good rule of thumb.

Olive fruit from tree to production

Our daughter, Liva, made this illustration to show the process from olive tree to olive fruit, olive oil, furniture and beauty products. The drawing is based on what we have learned at the Official Olive Museum of Sparta.

Do olive trees produce anything other than olive fruit and olive oil?

The Greek Olive Tree has many purposes. We learned this when visiting The Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta. Dedicated to the Greek olive tree and the olive industry that has grown from it.

We got a good glimpse into the history of the olive fruit and the machines used to extract olive oil and other products over time.

In the beginning, the products extracted from the olive tree were a luxury. But over time, the products became more accessible to ordinary people.

Today it is an essential part of the Greek diet, and they drink or eat an average of 25 litres of olive oil a year. They use it in everything from frying and baking to salads, cooking and various health treatments. Because olive fruit and olive oil are healthy foods. It includes a lot of good fatty acids.

olive oil production in the Hellenistic period

Olive fruit production unit from the Hellenistic period (323 B.C. until 31 B.C)

When were olive oil and olive fruits first produced?

When we first visited the Peloponnese and explored the Corinth Canal, we visited Mycenae. One of the most important sites in Greek history. Here we learned that the first official Greek alphabet interpreted was Linear B.

Linear B proved when olive fruits and olive oil production in Greece started. It tells us about production in two main areas.

In Pylos in the south-western Peloponnese around 1300 BC and Crete at the Palace of Knossos around 1400 BC. In other words, olive oil and fruits were produced more than 3,600 years ago!

How to prepare the olive fruit for eating?

The first time in Peloponnese, we drove past many olive fields. We were tempted to pick a few, but we had to throw them out immediately once we did. They tasted absolutely awful!

So forget about picking them directly from the tree. They need to be processed first and put in a brine – typically consisting of water and salt. Depending on the process, they must stay there anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

olive oil tasting with kids

Emma participates in olive oil tasting on The Olive Routes Tour.

The best Olive Oil

It’s difficult to name the best olive oil; in the same way, it’s challenging to do with wine. Olive oil has many nuances. But you can learn to tell the difference and find your own best olive oil.

On our trip around the Peloponnese, we stopped by Dimitra and her company, The Olive Routes, where we participated in the Kids Olive – Love Experience. We had a great day with her and the kids. We were cooking Greek food, tasting olive oil and having a good discussion about many things related to the Greek olive tree and its importance to the area.

At our olive oil tasting, we learned about the technique of tasting olive oil. Dimitra is part of the national tasting committee that evaluates olive oil for its quality. So it was fun to learn from an expert.

How to taste olive oil

When she has to rate an olive oil on a scale from 1-10 (7 being the highest), she does the following:

  1. Pours the olive oil into a tall glass.
  2. Places a flat hand at the top that seals the glass.
  3. Holds the other hand around the bottom of the glass and rotates the glass to warm the oil slightly.
  4. After a while, she holds the glass in her outstretched arm down to the floor to see if she can smell anything.
  5. The glass is moved up towards her nose about 10 cm at a time until she can smell it. The further from the nose she can smell it, the better it is.
  6. Then it’s time for tasting! Take some of the oil into your mouth, and make some quick breaths inwards while opening your mouth with your teeth closed. This will make you able to taste the bitterness in your mouth and feel how much it burns in your throat.

Our tasting, according to Dimitra, was a 5 and smelled excellent of freshly cut grass. I would have given it a 10, though, rookie as I am 😀

Which type of olive oil is the best and purest?

All the good oils are cold-pressed. This is because they are crushed with a machine without any heat. If they are not cold-pressed, they are of a very different quality.

Olive oils are ranked according to the following scale:

  1. Extra virgin olive oil: is the finest olive oil with the highest test scores.
  2. Virgin olive oil: Almost as good as Extra, but scored slightly lower in tests.
  3. Olive oil: A blend of heat-treated olive oil and virgin olive oil.
  4. Refined olive oil: A tasteless oil produced at high temperatures in a chemical process.
  5. Olive oil from press residues: Oil that is chemically pressed from olive remains.

You can use all of them for frying, but only the top two will add something extra to your recipes.

Many different types of olive trees

From a selection of 29 different types of olive trees, there is a lot to choose from.

Which olive tree should I choose for my garden?

There are 29 different varieties of olive fruits, with Kalamata olive fruit being the best known worldwide. It is also one of my favourites.

Usually, only the big olive fruits are served whole at the dinner table.

The small and medium-sized ones are most often used to produce olive oil. The small ones do not contain much pulp relative to the stone. But they taste delicious as well.

In the list below, you can see the different varieties. This could help you not to buy the wrong tree if you decide to grow one in your garden.

Small Olive fruit

  • Lianolia
  • Mavrelia
  • Thiaki
  • Koutsourelia
  • Mastoeidis
  • Myrtolia
  • Koroneiki (Most popular in Greece)
  • Chrysolia
  • Asprolia
  • Melolia
  • Tragolia

Medium-sized Olive fruit

  • Pikrolia
  • Kalokairida
  • Dafnelia
  • Adramitini
  • Throuolia
  • Agouromanakolia
  • Megaritiki

Big Olive fruit

  • Kolovi
  • Kothreiki
  • Karolia
  • Kolympada
  • Conservolia
  • Kalamata (one of the most famous olive fruits)
  • Gaidouroelia
  • Karydoelia II
  • Strogilolia
  • Vasilikada
  • Amigdalolia

olive fruits from tree in your garden

Olive trees for the garden

You now know that the olive tree is a very resilient plant. History shows they can withstand being burned, as has happened so many times. They can withstand extreme drought and last for hundreds of years – even thousands. 

You shouldn’t be nervous about buying a tree for your garden. It will be just fine. Just make sure it is placed in a sunny spot as it loves sun and heat, and make sure it is in good soil. If necessary, add some fertiliser.

If you plant the olive tree in a pot, make sure it’s a pot with drainage at the bottom. It needs to be big enough as the tree or root system grows. The tree also does not benefit from being replanted too often. 

Beware of over-watering the olive tree as it does not benefit from wet roots.

You don’t need to worry about whether there are enough bees in the area to pollinate the tree’s flowers, as the wind pollinates an olive tree. 

If in a pot, it is good to take the pot inside if the winter is harsh. It can be stored in a cool place – preferably with light. But ask at your local plant centre about the particular tree you choose.

Ready to buy your olive tree and grow olive fruits?

If you’ve read this far, it must be because you find the olive tree and its history fascinating like me. But have you learned anything new? Did I miss something, or do you have something to add? 

Or are you in the car heading towards your local plant shop?

I hope it’s the latter, but feel free to comment below. Thanks for reading along.

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