While wild olives from prehistoric times have been found fossilized in Andalusia, Spain, the oldest known record of olive oil is found on Crete inscribed on earthenware tablets that date to 2500 B.C., during the reign of King Minos.
Thousands of years before Pompeian began bringing olive oil to American tables, olives played a central role in Mediterranean lives, as fuel for lamps, ointment for wounds, lubricant to move the stones for the Egyptian pyramids and to bring out the luster in woodwork. Olive trees were so revered, the olive branch even became a symbol of peace.
Greek mythology speaks of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, arts and peace, whose tree was a source of this flavorful food, while the Koran talks of the condiment oils derived of trees on Mount Sinai. Phoenician sailors are said to have spread the trees throughout Asia Minor.
As Romans conquered areas throughout the Mediterranean, they also cultivated the trees. Under the Roman Empire, olive oil became one of the world’s first items of international trade. With Hispania (Spain) as its chief supplier, Rome shipped this precious cargo in earthenware amphorae to every part of its vast domain.
When Europeans came to the New World in the 1500s, they brought the olive tree with them, and it soon flourished in South and Central America and eventually California. Some of these imported olive trees have grown for 400 years. Even more astounding, in the Mediterranean region, botanists have found some olive trees, which are a type of evergreen, to be more than 1000 years old. While their greatest fruit-bearing productivity is between 35 and 150 years, these ancient trees have been providing the health benefits of olives to nearly 40 generations of people.
Today, there are more than 70 different varieties of olives, with most olive oil coming from Spain, followed by Italy and Greece.