On Crete, the conditions have always been perfect for growing olive trees, so it's hardly surprising that the very first olives were cultivated by Cretan farmers.
The ancestor of the cultivated olive tree is believed to be a well-known variety of wild olive still common in Crete today: olea chrysophylla. Fossilised leaves show that this is a truly ancient species - at least fifty-thousand years old. Archaeologists believe the cultivation of olives began in Neolithic Crete and clear evidence shows that during the Bronze Age olives were being systematically farmed by the Minoans.
Thousands of years before the birth of Christ the Minoan civilisation was flourishing on Crete and the cultivation of olive trees was one of their basic occupations. Not only were the olives and their oil used for food, but the wood of the olive tree was used for furniture. Olive trees feature in Minoan art, and olive stones have been found in Minoan graves. Oil lamps discovered in archaeological digs show how olive oil was used for lighting. It seems that olives were even used as offerings to the gods.
Evidence found on tablets suggests that the Minoans had an advanced knowledge of the oil industry. They knew how to separate olives of different types and qualities, and how to scent the oil they had extracted. Different names were given to different types of scented oil: ortheon was oil scented with rose petals; sfakoen was oil scented with sage; and kyperoen was oil scented with cyperus. Clay tablets at Knossos (the heart of the Minoan Empire) refer to oil from Lycos (a beautiful city in central Crete) being scented with coriander.
As time passed other states and kingdoms began to cultivate olive trees. Soon Athens became the main producer of olive oil and Crete's trade declined. Nevertheless, Crete continued to produce vast amounts of oil - for food and for lighting buildings. Between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. olive oil was the island's main export to Egypt. However, there was a decline in olive oil production in the centuries that followed - probably due to the new demand for Cretan wine.
The history of Crete was quite turbulent over the next 2,000 years. Between 828 and 961 B.C., the islanders were enslaved by Arabian-Saracens from Spain. Having been freed, Crete became a Byzantine district, which was captured by Jesuits in 1204. The Jesuits then sold the island to the Venetians, who occupied it until 1669 (it was during this period that the original Caza dei Mezzo was built). The Turks conquered Crete and remained there until 1898 when the island was finally liberated.
Toward the end of the 16th century there was once again a huge increase in olive cultivation. Cretan olive oil was in great demand, especially in France where it was used to make soap. (Although this industry declined towards the early 20th century, high quality white or green soap made from olive oil is still produced today.) Times became much harder under the Turkish occupation due to harsh tax laws and other problems, but olive oil was never in short supply among the Cretan farmers. From the beginning to the end of the 18th century, the production of olive oil tripled.
Since then, the increase in olive oil production has continued.
Article by Louisa Watson
Olives are native to the Mediterranean and come in many varieties. The trees grow very slowly and live for centuries, blossoming in spring and developing their fruit soon after. At first the fruit is a bright green colour, but reddens as it ripens, finally turning black. When the olives are ready to be gathered the trees are beaten with sticks and the fallen fruits are gathered in baskets. They need to be pressed quickly after being harvested – the best olive oil is pressed on the very same day as the olives are gathered.
Olive oil comes in a variety of colours, from green to golden yellow – sometimes, if it has not yet settled, it can even appear cloudy. The greener oils usually come from olives gathered early in the harvesting season. Although colour is not a sure indicator of quality, the scent of the oil is very important in assessing its value. The scent and taste result from the area where the olives were grown, and the way they were cultivated. The very best oils have a scent reminiscent of fruit – the product of ripe olives with well balanced characteristics. Like fine wine, olive oil comes in many flavours. However, unlike wine, it does not improve with age! To retain its natural character it should be stored in a glass bottle, preferably in a dark place and at a temperature of 10–15º Celsius. In these conditions, it can be preserved for up to several months.