`Symbolism of Olive Oil - Olive Oil Times

Symbolism of Olive Oil

May. 24, 2010
Dr. M.P. Graziani

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Rooted in the soil, cours­ing in the veins: the sym­bol­ism of olive oil.

When we food sci­en­tists study the ali­men­tary act” – choos­ing and con­sum­ing a given food­stuff – we approach it as a behav­ior that is defined by the mul­ti­ple fac­tors, both indi­vid­ual as well as envi­ron­men­tal, that come into play in the process of obtain­ing, mak­ing and eat­ing food. When we choose an oil today, there is a whole spec­trum of infor­ma­tion avail­able to us. Consumers in dif­fer­ent places are edu­cated to a dif­fer­ent degree about a prod­uct, they have dif­fer­ent lev­els of famil­iar­ity with its ori­gins, and then, of course, we have the bot­tles and the avalanche of text and rus­tic images their labels present us – they appear like greet­ings cards and read like poems, cast­ing back nos­tal­gi­cally to the Old World and its dis­tant tra­di­tions.

The sci­en­tific- and legal-sound­ing infor­ma­tion printed on labels — claims about health ben­e­fits, offi­cial-look­ing titles like D.O.C.”, and Only Italian Olives!” – are among the top­ics that we can explore in greater detail in columns to come. How do food safety reg­u­la­tions impact meth­ods of cul­ti­va­tion? What do dif­fer­ent terms and claims printed on the label really mean? Let’s leave these for the future, for now, and peel back the label so we can peer into the golden prism below, back into the cul­tural ori­gins of this commodity’s great appeal. In this, my first arti­cle for Olive Oil Times, let’s take a look at some of the strongest cur­rents in the long his­tory and rich sym­bol­ism tied to olive oil, espe­cially in the con­text of Italy.

Today as always, the Mediterranean region accounts for the major­ity of olive pro­duc­tion: Spain, Italy, Greece, Syria, Turkey, Morocco and Algeria – together, these seven coun­tries pro­duce 90 % of the world’s olives, and export olive prod­ucts all over the world. Of course, olive oil hasn’t always been such a glob­al­ized com­mod­ity. The olive is the most impor­tant clas­si­cal fruit tree of the Mediterranean basin. A hardy tree, it grows on semi-inclined land­scapes and thrives in hot and arid cli­mates. Together with grape vine, fig and date, it com­prises the old­est group of plants, at the very root of hor­ti­cul­ture in the Old World. Since the Bronze Age, the wealth of many Mediterranean peo­ples cen­tered around the cul­ti­va­tion of olives because of the valu­able stor­able oil and edi­ble fruits they pro­vided. Olive oil was used in uncooked and cooked dishes, as well as for oint­ment and light­ing. The fruits were pre­served and the pulp was eaten. Bread and olives were – and still are – a sta­ple diet in peas­ant com­mu­ni­ties through­out the Mediterranean basin.

In its Mediterranean area of ori­gin, the olive tree, its leaves, the olives them­selves as well as their oil have sym­bolic value in social and reli­gious rit­u­als. References to olives and their oil abound in clas­si­cal and even Biblical writ­ings. Homer’s described the bed of the myth­i­cal hero Ulysses – whose very body, let’s remem­ber, was rubbed and cleansed with olive oil – which was built around an olive tree he found grow­ing on his land, and which he made the found­ing post of his bed – the cen­tral pil­lar of his fam­ily and home, with obvi­ous con­no­ta­tions of sta­bil­ity, fer­til­ity and benev­o­lence.

Olive oil’s sym­bolic and rit­ual value comes up again and again – from the tra­di­tional prac­tice of oil­ing the blade of the plow before it pen­e­trates the earth, again with a clear metaphoric value of fer­til­ity, to the famous moment in Genesis, an ancient text of the Holy Land, when a dove is sent out to search for liv­able land fol­low­ing the great bib­li­cal Flood – it is an olive branch that the dove brings back to Noah on the Arc, sig­nal­ing the pri­mor­dial promise of renewed life and a new begin­ning.

In rural Italy, long­stand­ing ali­men­tary sta­ples like olive oil under­pin both local economies and local cul­tures, and they are strongly tied to tra­di­tions even today. Their dif­fu­sion have always depended on con­sumers’ loy­alty to the ter­ri­tory and even to spe­cific olive-presses – called fran­toi, in Italian, where pro­duc­ers large and small take their olive har­vest, even from a small fam­ily grove, to have the oil pressed from it.

Fig. 1

If we look at 1960s Italy – when what we would term mod­ern” pat­terns of con­sump­tion were already com­ing into play – the aver­age

con­sumer had sim­ple moti­va­tions when it came to choos­ing ingre­di­ents for the kitchen. If con­sumers lived in small towns or vil­lages, they were still famil­iar with and under­stood agri­cul­tural prod­ucts pri­mar­ily based on their ter­ri­to­r­ial ori­gins and on the spe­cific iden­tity of local pro­duc­ers. Already, big city con­sumers were bas­ing their choices on the most well-known brands, fore­shad­ow­ing the future of increased mass pro­duc­tion.

Today’s cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques are designed to main­tain high qual­ity stan­dards and reduce costs. The new global con­sumer of olive oil is often entirely removed from the tra­di­tional con­text in which olive oil has its ori­gins, and the act of con­sum­ing oil is based on eco­nomic and social mod­els of food con­sump­tion that are more cre­ative, destruc­tured, ripped out of its orig­i­nal con­text – in what we refer to as the post-mod­ern’ model of con­sump­tion. Surprisingly, in this post-mod­ern, glob­al­ized mar­ket­place, instead of shed­ding the signs of their ori­gins, olive oils now fly the flags of their sup­posed home­lands all the higher.

In the past, pro­duc­ers made their mark by empha­siz­ing their belong­ing to a given group or ter­ri­tory. These aspects are made all the clearer when the prod­uct is to be exported (fig. 1).

Today, com­mer­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion about olive oil in Italy is based on the seduc­tive­ness of the emo­tional mes­sages sent through slo­gans and images. (fig. 2).

Fig. 2

A mark of the post-mod­ern con­sumer is the value he or she gives to extrin­sic and sub­jec­tive fac­tors – like per­ceived taste, atmos­phere, health, price, tra­di­tions and other exter­nal mes­sages – and asso­ciates to the prod­uct. This has led pro­duc­ers to strongly pro­mote myths and his­toric and sym­bolic val­ues hand-in-hand with the chang­ing socio-cul­tural desires of today’s con­sumers, which are related to body image, per­for­mance, health, beauty, main­tain­ing youth­ful looks, pres­tige and value.

How has the com­mer­cial suc­cess of a rus­tic, fun­da­men­tally local prod­uct been pos­si­ble on such a global scale? Obviously, what we food sci­en­tists call the intrin­sic char­ac­ter­is­tics” of olive oil – its nutri­tional value, poten­tial uses, taste appeal, qual­ity – play a fun­da­men­tal role, the var­i­ous aspects of which we will dis­cuss in other arti­cles. But the rich­ness of its his­tory and sym­bol­ism makes olive oil an easy sell in terms of the extrin­sic fac­tors” that come into play in the com­mer­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion used in today’s world­wide mar­kets. Advertisers exploit these fac­tors to con­vince con­sumers as far apart as Moscow and Mumbai that they need a par­tic­u­lar olive oil because it’s just like the one their (imag­i­nary) Italian nonna used to use!


The mul­ti­fac­eted value of olive oil and of the tree that pro­duces it are still very much alive today. From Homer to the Bible, to today’s TV and mag­a­zine adverts, the olive and its oil have a deep-rooted sym­bolic power in the cul­ture of the Mediterranean region. At the same time, olive oil has now con­quered the world far beyond its lands of ori­gin, to become a com­mod­ity of global value. It will be my plea­sure to address Olive Oil Times’ read­ers ques­tions on olive oil from a dual per­spec­tive – col­ored by a knowl­edge of this cul­ture and his­tory I was born into, and edu­cated by a career as a researcher on food con­sump­tion in con­tem­po­rary ali­men­tary sci­ence. I invite you – let’s start a con­ver­sa­tion!

Maria Paola Graziani is a pro­fes­sor at the University of Rome spe­cial­iz­ing in food sci­ence research, con­sumer per­cep­tions, trends and qual­ity analy­ses. In her dis­tin­guished career, she has worked exten­sively on olive oil (and other seed oils), edu­cated con­sumers and the gen­eral pub­lic about food issues, and appeared fre­quently as an expert in national pub­li­ca­tions and on radio and tele­vi­sion shows in Italy. Dr. Graziani is often con­sulted on food con­sump­tion ques­tions, per­cep­tions of taste and enjoy­ment of food, and to trans­late sci­en­tific top­ics into every­day lan­guage for gen­eral audi­ences.


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