How Olive Oil Was Made in Ancient Rome in the Middle Ages (Plus in Modern Times)

If you think cannabis pos­sess­es a broad range of appli­ca­tions, olive oil is going to blow your mind!

Humans have been hip to this mir­a­cle elixir since approx­i­mate­ly 2500 BCE, when Mediter­ranean dwellers used it as lamp fuel and to anoint roy­al­ty, war­riors, and oth­er VIPs. (Not for noth­ing does “mes­si­ah” trans­late to “the anoint­ed one”…)

Its culi­nary appli­ca­tions entered the mix between the 5th and 4th cen­turies BCE.

Even amur­ca, the bit­ter tast­ing, foul smelling liq­uid byprod­uct of the oil press­ing process had numer­ous things to rec­om­mend it, as least as far as the ancient Romans were con­cerned. They used it as a fer­til­iz­er, a pes­ti­cide, a floor plas­ter, a sealant for jars, a fire accel­er­ant, moth repel­lent, axel grease, a sur­face var­nish, a nutri­tion­al sup­ple­ment for live­stock, and a rem­e­dy for skin dis­eases and infec­tions.

It’s also a seri­ous pol­lu­tant, so good on them for divert­ing it from the land­fill.

Meth­ods for extract­ing this prac­ti­cal, nutri­tion­al pow­er­house from the olive fruit have evolved over time.

Bronze Age fres­coes and ancient papyri doc­u­ment the ear­li­est approach.

The Romans and Greeks took things up a notch with mechan­i­cal press­es, such as the repli­ca at the Bib­li­cal His­to­ry Cen­ter, above.

In an episode of his Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Unchart­ed series, chef Gor­don Ram­say trav­eled to Moroc­co to take a turn at one of the man­u­al­ly-turned stone grind­ing wheels that were the Mid­dle Ages’ con­tri­bu­tion to the his­to­ry of olive oil, dis­cov­er­ing in the process that such “bloody hard work” is bet­ter accom­plished by an ass.

His labors were reward­ed with a taste of olive oil straight from the press - oh my lord, that is beau­ti­ful! I’ve heard of extra vir­gin but this is gonna be extra-extra vir­gin!

Insid­er Food tracks olive oil to the 21st cen­tu­ry, where pro­duc­tion is under­way at a mill in Monop­o­li in the south­ern Ital­ian region of Puglia, an area where olive trees out­num­ber humans, 15 to 1.

Puglia’s 1,000-plus mills sup­ply 40% of the country’s olive oil pro­duc­tion, and 12% world­wide.

Con­tem­po­rary olive oil mak­ers obtain a tra­di­tion­al qual­i­ty prod­uct by split­ting the dif­fer­ence between the ancient and the mod­ern, with con­vey­or belts fer­ry­ing the fruit to a vat where machine-dri­ven gran­ite wheels crush them to a pulp.

It’s less pic­turesque, but also more effi­cient and hygien­ic than pre-Indus­tri­al meth­ods, thanks, in part, to rub­ber gloves and stain­less steel.

Grad­ing oil accord­ing to its puri­ty is also a mod­ern inno­va­tion, pro­vid­ing con­sumers a han­dle qual­i­ty, taste and health attrib­ut­es.

Learn more about the his­to­ry of olive oil here, then get cookin’!

Relat­ed Con­tent

Vis­it Monte Tes­tac­cio, the Ancient Roman Hill Made of 50 Mil­lion Crushed Olive Oil Jugs

3,000-Year-Old Olive Tree on the Greek Island of Crete Still Pro­duces Olives Today

Cook Real Recipes from Ancient Rome: Ostrich Ragoût, Roast Wild Boar, Nut Tarts & More

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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