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Harvesting and using olives in ancient times

November 6th at 12:00am

by Athan Gadanidis
Harvesting and using olive oil in ancient times had some similarities to our own era, but also some distinct differences. They were focused more on the health benefits of olive oil than the taste. For example, in ancient Hellenic culture there were three distinct harvest periods for three distinct categories of olive oil.

First harvest

The first harvest commenced in mid-September, and this olive oil was extremely bitter and pungent designated as medicinal quality olive oil. This first harvest olive oil was very rich in polyphenols such as oleocanthal and oleacein.

The second harvest

The second harvest followed in mid-October and this was the more palatable olive oil distinctly bitter and pungent with a strong tickling of the throat finish but more well rounded. Suitable for drizzling on salads, fresh or cooked greens, soups, and over fish or meat. They also mixed this olive oil with their wine. This tradition has its modern counterpart in using balsamic vinegar and olive oil as a dip for bread or as salad dressing. This combination of olive oil and wine has recently been found to increase the benefits of olive oil for heart health.

"Postprandial improvement of endothelial function by red wine and olive oil antioxidants: a synergistic effect of components of the Mediterranean diet”. []

The third and final harvest

The third and final harvest was from late November to the end of January. This olive oil was primarily made from ripened olives and used for cooking and every day use. This was the most common of olive oils which still offered a good amount of phenolic compounds along with healthy energy providing monounsaturated fat.

Raw Olives

Raw olives were also used to make poultices directly from the tree as needed for medicinal purposes. To this day traditional Hellenic medicine is still practised by the older generation mostly in villages across Greece.

Raw olives were most likely eaten mixed with wine or vinegar for maximum nutrition as well.

Scientific Research

In recent years scientific research has been able to shed some light as to why they believed olive oil to be so healthy.Olive fruit chemistry is extremely complex. The phenolic compounds they contain are in constant flux as the olive fruit matures and ripens. One of the main reasons olive oil and olives were used extensively as a food source, was because of their long storage life. They were easily transported, and they became important trading commodities. Olive oil when stored properly, can last more than 2 years, with most of its phenolic compounds relatively intact (the loss of phenolic compounds is about 20 - 30%). The higher the phenolic content to begin with, the longer the olive oil will taste fresh and alive. Essentially olive oil was a highly nutritional energy source, with the added benefit of being a portable storage device for health-promoting phenolic compounds.

In my following articles I will focus on the specific health benefits derived from olive oils, based on their individual phenolic profiles along with their history, latest research and its many uses. I invite you to submit your questions, and please feel free to offer your own opinion, knowledge or experience with the health benefits of olive oil.

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