Edible histories: olive oil

Categories: Product stories, History of food

From a Roman hill to a Victorian pharmacy, via chaste boys and drowned mice, Mark Riddaway tells the story of olive oil

Words: Mark Riddaway

Looming over the Testaccio district of Rome, a traditionally working class neighbourhood that today hosts some of the city’s best restaurants, is what looks, from a distance, like a fairly mundane hill. This, though, is no ordinary landform. Known as Monte Testaccio, it is contrived not from earth and stones but from the remains of more than 50 million amphorae—vast ceramic vessels that between them once contained around 6 billion litres of olive oil.

Completed around 250AD but dating back several centuries, this extraordinary hill’s construction was a systematic operation typical of the Roman state—the oil-filled amphorae brought from around the empire to the nearby Horrea Galbae warehouses to be emptied of their unctuous cargo, before being smashed into manageable pieces and layered up in a series of terraces. Most were globular 70-litre vessels of a style unique to Hispania Baetica, the Roman province in what is now Andalusia, southern Spain; millions more have been traced back to Byzacena (roughly Tunisia) and Tripolitania (Libya).

Monte Testaccio attests to both Rome’s bottomless appetite for olive oil and the huge quantities that were by then being produced on all sides of the Mediterranean. Olives had been cultivated in that corner of the world for thousands of years. The region around Syria and Palestine is often cited as the most likely starting point, probably in the Early Bronze Age, although it is quite possible that other centres of cultivation developed independently around the same time. Cultivation led to olive fruits becoming ever more laden with oil, which would find its way into lamps, cosmetics and medicines as well as cooking pots, making it a hugely valuable resource. Through settlement and trade, the Phoenicians and later the Greeks became the main engines of the olive tree’s gradual diffusion—between them they helped establish its presence in north Africa, the Aegean islands, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and Provence.

Ancient dupery
In The Natural History (77AD), Pliny the Elder described 15 varieties of olive from around the empire, distinguishing between those that were good for the table and those that were good for oil. His suggestion of where the best oils came from was fairly predictable: “In the production of this blessing… Italy holds the highest rank among all countries.” Like many of his countrymen, he praised the oil of Venafro, in the central Italian region of Molise, for its qualities as both a beauty product and a food: “It is our unguents which have brought this oil into such great esteem, the peculiar odour of it adapting itself so well to the full development of their qualities; at the same time its delicate flavour equally enlists the palate in its behalf.” Marcus Terentius Varro, writing a century or so earlier, included the Venafro’s oil in a list of his homeland’s great foods: “What spelt shall I compare to the Campanian, what wheat to the Apulian, what wine to the Falernian, what oil to the Venafran?”

Oil from Liburnia, now part of Croatia, was also highly valued, as can be inferred from an ancient piece of dupery. In the Apicius cookbook, compiled in the 1st century AD, a suggestion was made for how inferior Spanish oil could be passed off as the primo Liburnian stuff through the addition of powdered elecampane, Cyprian rush and green laurel. “Sift this in and add finely ground salt and stir industriously for three days or more. Then allow to settle. Everybody will take this for Liburnian oil.”

As is true today, the method of production was understood by the ancients to be fundamental to the quality of the oil, the concept of extra virgin olive oil being one with very deep roots. “The first oil of all, produced from the raw olive before it has begun to ripen, is considered preferable to all the others in flavour,” Pliny explained. “In this kind, too, the first droppings of the press are the most esteemed, diminishing gradually in goodness and value… The riper the berry, the more unctuous the juice, and the less agreeable the taste.” In 301AD, a set of price controls issued by Emperor Diocletian defined three classes of olive oil: ‘floris’, derived from the word for flower, but used to mean something in its perfect state; ‘sequentis’—the second pressing; and ‘cibari’, meaning ordinary or common. The first of these was just over three times the price of the cheap stuff—a similar differential as could be expected today between a single-estate extra virgin and a non-virgin blend.

Chaste boys
According to The Geoponica, a collection of agricultural lore produced in 10th century Constantinople but compiled from much older Greek and Roman sources, other more surprising factors could also impact on quality. “The olive being pure, ought to have them that gather it chaste; and they ought to swear that they come from their own wife’s, not from another’s bed, for it will thus produce a great abundance of fruit for the time to come,” it suggested. “They say also, that in Anarzarbe of Cilicia [southern Anatolia], chaste boys cultivate the olive, and for this reason, that the olive is there very fruitful.” The same tract offered the suggestion that if a mouse, or any other animal, has fallen into your olive oil, the “unsavoury smell” from its corpse can be removed with the addition of coriander seed, dried fenugreek or red hot coals of burnt olive wood.

Britain is an island with lots of mice but no olives. Here, plenty of evidence has been found that the Romans shipped olive oil to those far-flung corners of the empire where no local supply could be found. Thousands of oil amphorae, mostly Spanish but some north African, have been found in major cities such as London and Colchester and in the heavily militarised area by Hadrian’s wall. Wherever Roman troops were stationed, olive oil followed. Freighting all those heavy jars to this cold, distant realm must have been an expensive and logistically challenging business, but while legionaries became inured to the grim weather and the savage locals, they clearly couldn’t cope without their favourite form of fat.

After the Romans left Britain, those regular shipments stopped arriving, but small amounts of olive oil continued to make their way into the kitchens of the very wealthy. The Forme of Cury (c.1390), a collection of recipes from the household of Richard II, included a handful of mentions of “oyle de olyf”. The instructions for ‘porrey chapeleyn’—battered onion rings—required that “an hundred onyons” be halved, cooked in olive oil and almond milk, separated into rings, lightly battered, then fried in more olive oil. Another recipe suggested olive oil as an alternative to beef broth as a medium in which to cook apples—an option it specified as being for “fysch dayes”.

A source of resentment
Fish days were the many occasions, including Fridays, saints’ days and Lent, on which meat and other luxuries were banned by the Catholic church. On such days, the liberal use of olive oil was perfectly acceptable, while butter and other animal fats were outlawed unless permission had been paid for. In those northern European regions that lacked olive oil, it was a source of some resentment that the clergy, the seat of whose power lay in the heart of olive country, were not just upholding this law but profiting from it. As Martin Luther put it: “At Rome they themselves laugh at the fasts, making us foreigners eat the oil with which they would not grease their shoes, and afterwards selling us liberty to eat butter.”

After England became a protestant country and could happily gorge on butter every day of the week, the next putative invaders of these islands took similar preparatory measures to those of the Romans a millennium-and-a-half earlier. When the Spanish Armada set off in 1588, its ships were provisioned with 11,398 arrobas of olive oil (around 40,000 gallons)—over a gallon per soldier, designed to last through a six-month stint on this buttery isle. King Philip II may have misjudged completely the speed of his enemy’s fleet and the malevolence of our storms, but he fully understood the British ambivalence towards any fat that didn’t come from an animal.

That ambivalence, though, only fully extended to olive oil’s use in the kitchen. For centuries, producers of olive oil found Britain to be a useful dumping ground for the worst dregs of their output, convinced as we were that this golden unguent was a medicine, not a food. Pharmacies abounded with the stuff. In Pharmacopoeia Bateana, a collection of the prescriptions of George Bate, court physician to Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, olive oil was used in dozens of medicines. One remedy, good against “pustles of the lips, and cancers of the breasts”, instructed the chemist to take live toads and “boil them in oil-olive for one hour, or till they break; then strain and keep it for use”. A similar recipe using live frogs could, it was stated, be used against “redness of the face” as well as gangrene and cancer (but William Salmon, who edited the 1694 edition of the book, noted in his commentary that toad-infused olive oil was a much more effective medicine).

An antidote against flatulency
We did eat some, but not much. As Mrs Beeton explained in 1861: “The oil extracted from olives, called olive oil, or salad oil, is, with the continentals, in continual request, more dishes being prepared with than without it, we should imagine.” The British, on the other hand, occasionally drizzled it onto lettuce in the hope they might fart less: “With us, it is principally used in mixing a salad, and when thus employed, it tends to prevent fermentation, and is an antidote against flatulency.” Any olive oil that could be bought in Britain would have been vile. “Really good pure olive oil is almost unknown outside the boundaries of Italy,” explained Nathaniel Newnham Davis in The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe (1903). “An Italian gentleman never eats salad when travelling in foreign countries, for his palate, used to the finest oils, revolts against the liquid fit only for the lubrication of machinery he so often is offered in Germany, England, and France.”

In the middle of the 20th century, Elizabeth David’s evangelism for olive oil had a profound influence on some British people—at least on the kind of people who bought Elizabeth David cookbooks—but access remained an issue. Writing in 1963, she noted that good Italian oil could then be bought “in Soho, but almost nowhere else” and that “anything marked simply ‘salad oil’ is best left alone”. Pharmacies remained the principal stockists. Simon Hopkinson recalled in his cookbook Roast Chicken and Other Stories (1994): “The first time I made mayonnaise, the olive oil I used came from Boots the chemist. It was a small bottle, pretty tasteless and quite clearly not meant for culinary purposes.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that those barriers finally began to break, torn down by foreign holidays, cholesterol scares and the sight of Jamie Oliver glugging litres of the stuff onto everything he made. In 1991, the UK got through 6,800 tonnes of olive oil; by 2018 we were pouring and drizzling just short of 10 times that amount (although, to put that in perspective, Italy, with a slightly smaller population, consistently gets through well over half a million tonnes a year).

Britain’s attitude to olive oil may have changed, but what is perhaps most remarkable about this extraordinary product is how much has stayed exactly the same. Today, the main producers and consumers of olive oil are those countries that have been making and eating it for thousands of years, and the process by which high quality olive oil is made—for example, the cold-pressed extra virgin sold at Borough by the likes of Oliveology, The Olive Oil Company and Brindisa—differs only minutely from that described in length by the likes of Pliny the Elder. Spain, from where those vast amphorae were shipped, is by a country mile the world’s biggest producer, followed by Italy and Greece, with Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco close behind. A few olive oil producers have established themselves in the USA, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay—but barely enough to construct even a small hill with their cast-off vessels.