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.
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).
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.