For almost as long as there has been civilisation, there has been olive oil. The liquid gold that runs from these small fruits has been used by countless generations for a monumental chunk of our collective history whether for food, for washing, for lighting, for trading or a host of other reasons.
Archaeological evidence suggests that by the Neolithic era (about 8,000BCE) our ancestors in modern day Turkey had realised that the fruit from the olive tree tasted pretty good. The transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to more sedentary groups reliant on farming led to the domestication of the plant about 2,000 years later in either Asia Minor or Mesopotamia (what we know now as Iraq).
From there, the tree spread throughout the Mediterranean and quickly became essential to the Etruscan, Minoan, Greek and Roman empires. Oil extracted from the olives could be turned into soap, used as fuel for lanterns and, of course, eaten which explains its central role in cuisines stretching from The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, across Europe and all the way into North Africa.
Now the vast majority of the world’s olive oil is produced in Spain, Italy and Greece with Spain alone responsible for just over a third and the International Olive Oil Council is based in the country’s capital, Madrid. Suffice to say that they take things quite seriously over there, seriously enough to consume 13 kilos of oil per person per year.
The first pressing of the olives results in extra virgin olive oil, this is the good stuff that hasn’t been messed about with, the sort of oil you want to dip some seriously fresh bread into and eat all on its own for lunch whilst sat under an awning and gazing at the Umbrian Hills or over the Mediterranean sea. Much like wine or whiskey, different oils possess different flavours and textures. Don’t be surprised to hear someone banging on about peppery or honey notes balanced with a gentle acidity, in much the same manner an oenophile would when eulogising over a rare Bordeaux.
In terms of absolute kitchen essentials, olive oil tops my list, much as it does that of numerous other cooks, food writers and chefs. I dare say that I use it more than any other item in the kitchen whether it is for frying a piece of meat, dribbling over a plate of fresh tomatoes, making a batch of aioli or any of a thousand other uses. And what’s more, it’s staggeringly good for you, which, in my book anyway, makes it a near perfect ingredient.