Tasting Mediterranean

Wine & Olive Oil

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HISTORY OF OLIVE OIL

The landscape of Portugal has always derived a substantial element of its identity from the olive tree. The climate that prevails here, with warm and dry summers, mild winters and a high number of annual hours of sunshine spread out over the entire year, is perfectly suited to growing olives.

Moreover it is precisely the olive tree that that defines Portugal as a Mediterranean country, even though it doesn’t have a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. This is due to the fact that the distribution zone of the olive tree defines the borders of the Mediterranean area. For this reason we occasionally hear the term ‘olive tree border...’

The Portuguese word for olive oil is Azeite. The word comes from the Arabic Az-zait, which means juice of the olive, thus expressing the special nature of olive oil: the high-grade juice of olives. While most fats and oils are extracted by chemical means, olive oil is produced exclusively by mechanical pressing. This means that olive oil is nothing other than pure, unadulterated fruit.

A drop upon the hot stone

The oldest evidence of olive trees is to be found in the fossil artefacts of a volcanic eruption on the Greek island Santorini, which took place nearly forty thousand years ago. It remains unclear at what point the wild olive tree was cultivated into the fruitful grove-olive, very likely around 4000–3000 BC in the realm of the ‘fertile crescent’ – ancient Mesopotamia, which included present-day Iraq, northern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. In any event, olive oil became an important staple of the diet so quickly that the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans promoted cultivation of the olive tree in all lands where they spread their cultural influence.

The impressive olive oils of Alentejo were already mentioned by the ancient Roman historian, philosopher and geographer Strabo. Over the centuries, olive groves in Portugal continued to be planted; the olive tree experienced its greatest dispersal within the country at the beginning of the 14th century.

Portuguese olive oil production declined in the 1960s, as did domestic consumption. That decade saw the dawning of the ‘Age of Margarine’, which inflicted a significant hardship upon Portuguese olive oil production.

It wasn‘t until the 1990s that Portuguese production recovered, as olive oil achieved recognition for its benefits to health. Production then doubled in the space of five years.