Crete and Olive Oil: An Affair Lost in Time

Olive Oil In Crete

It is this time of the year where, Olive Oil, one of the most important (if not THE most important) products of Crete is being produced. A walk around the outskirts of any urban area of the island has evidence of recent or immediate agricultural activity in land covered with olive groves. Cars parked on the side of the road and harvest nets spread as far as the middle of the road witness the activity in the olive groves now. The closer we get to Christmas Holidays the more intense the activity is. People take a few days off from their day jobs in order to gather with the rest of the family and pick up the olives so they can produce the olive oil for their yearly consumption, and if it is a good season, even make an extra income.

Regardless of the weather conditions, families with gather up the necessary equipment and head to the groves in order to produce the olives. It does not matter how remote you travel one is at this time in Crete, in the silence of a car free environment one can always hear the sound of the small motor engine that powers the harvest sticks, the distant shouts of men trying to communicate over the noise of the little power generator and the sound of the leafs taping each other as the branches get shaken, almost beaten so the olives can drop.

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But let us take things one step at the time. In order to understand olive oil and what is the fuzz all about one must understand the product and its importance in time and space for the people of Greece in general and Crete in particular.

Where Does It Come From

There is a very long history and mythology around the olive. Some say it has been harvested in Crete between 9 and 12.000 years BC, while others argue that it came to Crete from Minor Asia and Syria  around 6000 BC.  Despite the fact that there is no clear cut evidence as where the tree is really coming from, it is certain that the production of olive oil on the island has been an ancient practice. Minoan frescoes portray the harvesting of the olive with sticks, while chemical analysis from residues collected from clay pots of the time witness the use and storage of olive oil.

The Significance Then..

Olives and olive oil have been central in the daily life of Greek people. It was always considered one of the most premium products to have. It was closely linked with the holy and the divine. Athens, for example, took its name after the goddess Athena presented the Athenians with an olive tree for a present. Once the great city of Athens was build there was a battle as to which God will be the city dedicated to and named after. The competitors were Athena and Poseidon. On the holy rock of Acropolis Poseidon stroke his trident and water sprang. Athena on the other hand hit her spear on the rock and an olive tree came out. The Athenians thought that the olive tree was an incredible gift to receive and the rest is history….

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The importance of the olive is also evident in the Olympic games where the ultimate reward for the champion of any sport other than the olive wreath (kotinos) was very large amount of olive oil.  In many cases Olympic Champions would leave with ships full of amphorae with olive oil in them making them very rich men.

Another example that signifies the importance of the olive was that men that did not take care of their olive groves were looked upon almost as criminals. If a man would burn or destroyed or burn an olive tree, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The Significance Not so Long ago..

Outside the mythological and historic significance of the olive and its products, olive oil was a product that played a vital role in the everyday life of the Cretan.

First and foremost we cannot discuss about the Cretan cuisine without olive oil. It is used in every dish. It is consumed in every possible way. Fried, baked, boiled, oven cooked, just name it! Olive oil is the crown jewel of the Cretan Diet and a house without it is a poor house. An urban legend suggests that in the late 1950’s an American researcher visited the island in order to examine the dietary habits of the people of Crete. After spending some time with the locals he came to the conclusion that the Cretan Diet is beneficial due to the amount of olive oil used, since as he mentioned, their food swims in olive oil.

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The importance of olive oil is evident everywhere in the life of the Cretan. Other than the nutritious aspect of it in terms of food, it is also the beneficial elements with regards to  the human body. It was very commonly used in beauty products, as well as, remedies for the cure or prevention of unwanted body effects.  For example it is believed until today that a spoon of olive oil before a night out will prevent one from getting drunk. Olive Oil mixed with laurel was particularly good for keeping a dark shiny color on woman’s hair. Olive Oil with walnut shells exposed on the sun for 7 to 10 days and then applied on the skin is believed to assist in gaining a nice chocolate color on your skin during the summer. There are various examples of olive oil usage in similar ways which made it vital in every day practices.

Olive Oil’s divine and religious character did not alter despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population of Crete are Christian Orthodox. It is used in major rituals by the Church including Baptism. In this case the godparent of the child is placing olive oil all over the child in order to pass the mercy and blessing of God. Another example is the Olive oil used for the light candles in front of sacred icons. It is considered that applying a small amount of this oil on ones face is a divine blessing. A visit in cemeteries demonstrates the sacred role of Olive Oil as well. The candles burning in memory (or rather for the blessing) of the deceased, is composed from 3 parts water and 1 part olive oil in order to keep the memory flame on. This is why small bottles of Olive Oil are always placed around the graves. Many argue that the use of olive oil in such rituals is the continuation of ancient practices due to the importance of Olive Oil as a product and its immediate connection with the light.

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One can talk about olive oil for ages and spend thousand of words trying to describe both its practical, as well as, symbolic importance. Olive Oil is part of the daily life of the people of Greece in general in all its facets. Whether part of food, or part of rituals, or part of the daily life in forms of cosmetics and other products, it is omnipresent. In later stages we will try to understand olive oil as a product in terms of its nutritious elements, however, the place it held in the perception of people is of vital significance. This way we can better understand the love affair and dedication of the people of Greece in general and Crete in particular regarding olive oil that is lost in time.