Skip Navigation LinksMain Page: Olive Products/Olive Oil History
The History of Olive Oil thru the centuries

The olive trees grow wild in the Middle East and its fruits have been used since prehistoric times.
Along with the wine, the olive tree was one of the first plants to be cultivated and the practice spread from Central Persia and Mesopotamia to Egypt and Phoenicia and then to Greece.
Harvesting in Ancient Greece
The Greeks, more specifically the Minoans of Crete, were the first to be involved in the full-scale cultivation of the olive. After 2000 BC the cultivation of the olive tree in Crete was very intense and systematic playing a primary role in the island's economy.
Between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC ancient philosophers, physicians and historians undertook its botanical classification and referred to the curative properties of olive oil.
This knowledge is being "rediscovered" today as modern scientists try to find out why the Mediterranean Diet is so healthy. The first export of olive oil began from Crete, not only to mainland Greece, but also to North Africa and Asia Minor.
In addition, it was probably the Minoans of Crete who first exported olive cuttings to these regions.
Cultivation of the olive tree quickly spread to mainland Greece and olive oil became an important part of the society and economy of the Mycenaean civilization.
The deciphering of Linear B script brought to light valuable information about the production, commerce and trading of olive oil during this period as can be seen in the palace records of Mycenae and Pylos.

Today more than 750 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide, the greatest number of which (c.95%) are planted in the Mediterranean region. In addition, there are at least fifty different varieties of olive, each with its own distinct characteristics.
Cultivation in Greek fields
The main producing areas in Greece are Crete and the Peloponnese, where the most important variety for oil production is the Koroneiki. In Greece, there are an estimated 120,000,000 olive trees and 350,000 Greek families involved in olive tree cultivation.
You would think that the olive was specially made for Greece, so well does it thrive in most regions of the country. It loves the sea and the sun.
The coastal regions have the perfect climatic conditions it needs and a suitable ecosystem for the tree to grow and bear fruit. The trees are slow to grow, taking four or five years to yield their first fruits and another 10 to 15 to reach their full capacity.
Once established, however, the olive tree can live for many years. There are stories of trees which have stood for a thousand years.
Everything that happens to the olive tree, from pruning in spring through flowering and harvesting in the late autumn, will have a bearing on the quality of the fruit, and thus on the product.
The bulk of the work associated with olive farming concentrates at two points in time:
  1. Pruning and Harvesting

Harvesting Olives in Greece
Pruning is the first thing a farmer does after harvesting to prepare the tree for the next crop.
There is a Greek saying which goes: "Water the olive tree and you beg it to give you oil; prune it well and you order it."
Very practical, given that water has a clear preference for fertile plains over the often poor, calcareous soil and rock of most Greek olive groves!
Harvest time in Greece is usually between October and January depending on autumn rainfall, and may even go on into February.
The harvest is an extremely critical time as far as ripeness is concerned.
Most growers want to produce as much good quality oil as possible and this means optimum ripeness, but if the olives are left on the trees too long they will over ripen and oxidize as soon as they are picked, producing unpleasant oil.
In Greece olive harvesting still remains predominantly a "family affair", with everyone contributing to the work: parents, grandparents (as long as they can still walk!), children back from school, and even members of the family who have opted for jobs in the city.
In recent years a large influx of immigrants to Greece from the Balkans has also provided a ready seasonal work force.


After harvesting, the olives are taken to the local olive mill where they are washed to remove leaves, twigs or earth, and crushed to produce a homogeneous mixture from which the liquid can be extracted.
There are two basic methods of extraction.
Mill stones pressing olives
  1. The first is called traditional and involves the crushing of the olives and their pits.

The pits are important the broken parts help to channel the oil when the paste is pressed. The milling process continues for about half an hour. During this time the cells of the fruit start to break down and release the oil. The paste is then spread evenly over small round woven mats which are piled up in batches of 30 or 40 on the hydraulic press.
The mats are designed to allow the oil to trickle out and down the stack and collect at the bottom of the press. The presses produce a reddish-brown liquid which is part oil and part natural vegetable water.
These two are separated in a centrifuge. In the past this process was carried out by slowly decanting the oil into troughs. The oil was then skimmed off as it rose to the surface. Some estate producers still like to use this method today, in which case the oil may be labelled Affirmation.
It is important to note that very small quantity of olive oil today is produced using the "traditional method" mainly because of the higher costs involved.
  1. The second and most widely used method is called continuous where extraction is entirely by centrifuge.

Modern method of crash olives
Here the olives are crushed by mechanical crushers and the resulting paste is spun at high speed to separate the flesh and the oil.
The main drawback of this modern method is that the mechanical crushers involve high temperatures and the hot water often added to the centrifugal phase to extract more oil contributes to washing out precious vitamins and nutrients from the oil.
Production of olive oil in Greece fluctuates between 300 and 400 thousand tonnes. About 2/3 of domestic production is covered by Crete and the Peloponnese and especially by the counties of Heraklion and Messinia.
The olive presses in Greece are small-sized family run businesses, which are set up in oil producing areas.
There are approximately 3,000 of these mills in operation throughout Greece! The olive oil is offered directly for consumption, or farther processed and/or bottled.
Most companies which process and/or bottle olive oil are also involved in its distribution in bulk, while there are also other trading companies (wholesale) dealing exclusively with sales within Greece and abroad.
Moreover, a number of cooperatives are involved not only in the production, but also in trading and bottling of their oil.
About one half of the annual olive oil production in Greece is exported. Average yearly the Greek olive oil exports grows to amount of 140,000 tons per year, while only seven to ten thousand tons reflect the bottled product.
Greek exports primarily target countries of the European Union, the main recipient being Italy, which receives about three quarters of Greece's total exports.
Due to the superior quality and excellent organoleptic properties of Greek olive oil it is not surprising that bulk exports quietly sneak into bottles and cans packaged and sold elsewhere.
For this reason it is more than likely that a regular olive oil consumer has tasted Greek olive oil at least once. The average annual domestic olive oil consumption of Greeks is estimated to be around 170,000 tons.
The largest part of that (42%) relates to personal consumption (Greeks consume more olive oil per capital than any other people in the world at almost 160 kilos annually!), the quantities of bulk olive oil which is traded by producers themselves comes up to 33%, while bottled olive oil covers just about 25% of total domestic consumption.