The Mediterranean’s Liquid Gold


“From green I changed to black, then they carefully crushed me, and into fine gold they finally transformed me.”​—A traditional Spanish riddle.

WHEN an olive ripens on the tree, it turns from green to shiny black. But inside its dark exterior lies “gold” waiting to be extracted. When crushed, ripe olives release a golden liquid, one that has graced the tables of Mediterranean households for thousands of years. This liquid gold​—olive oil—​is a treasured product of olive trees, which carpet hillsides from Portugal to Syria.

The oil of these hardy trees pleases the palate and contributes to good health. Mediterranean people have always understood “oil” to mean “olive oil.” In fact, the Spanish word for “oil,” aceite, comes from the Arabic word azzáyt, which literally means “juice of the olive.” And olive oil is just that​—the unadulterated fruit juice of crushed olives. Since oil flows from the olives without the need of additives or any chemical process, all of the  oil’s natural qualities, flavor, and aroma are preserved.

A Golden Liquid That Remains Unsurpassed

Historian Erla Zwingle explains that olive oil has been “valued through the ages for food, fuel, salve, and sacrament.” Today “the olive’s liquid gold remains unsurpassed among oils,” she adds. For thousands of years, the simple process of obtaining olive oil has remained the same. First, the harvesters beat the trees’ branches with rods to make the olives fall to the ground, where they are gathered. Then, the whole olives, including the pits, are crushed in a mill. Next, the solids are removed. Finally, the oil is separated from the water in a settling tank and is ready for consumption. *

Unlike gold, however, olive oil is almost as varied as wine. Worldwide, there are a billion olive trees under cultivation. * And horticulturists have classified more than 680 different varieties of olives. Apart from the difference in variety, such factors as the type of soil, the weather, the harvest date (ranging from November to February), and the extraction process influence the oil’s unique flavor, color, and aroma. Independent teams of professional tasters define the flavor of different oils as sweet, pungent, fruity, or harmonious. The tasters ensure that the quality of the final product is maintained.

The Mediterranean climate favors the cultivation of olive trees, and thus about 95 percent of all olive oil produced in the world comes from the Mediterranean basin. Travelers will notice groves of olive trees covering hillsides in Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. Truly, the rich bounty of the olive can be described as the “liquid gold of the Mediterranean.”

A Healthful Ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet

For centuries, Mediterranean cuisine has depended on olive oil to enhance the flavor of many typical dishes. It can be used when frying, marinating, or seasoning food. “A product that has been consumed for 4,000 years must be good,” asserts master chef José García Marín, describing the importance of olive oil in Spanish cooking. “And the quality of this ‘nectar’ has improved in recent years, thanks to careful production techniques,” he adds.

Researchers have long noticed that people who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet enjoy  significant health benefits. * Recently, nutritionists organized an International Conference on the Healthy Effect of Virgin Olive Oil. They concluded that the Mediterranean diet, including virgin olive oil, is compatible with a healthier, longer life. A diet rich in virgin olive oil may help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. “In all countries where the populations consume a typical Mediterranean diet . . . in which virgin olive oil is the principal source of fat,” the experts stated, “cancer incidence rates are lower than in Northern European countries.”

There may be many reasons for these health benefits. One of them is the high level of oleic acid (up to 80 percent) found in olive oil, which has a positive effect on the circulatory system. Furthermore, the absence of chemical processing and preservatives means that olive oil retains the vitamins, monounsaturated fats, and other natural ingredients of the ripe fruit.

 Because of the antioxidant capacity of its minor components, such as vitamin E and polyphenols (aromatic compounds), olive oil also protects and tones the skin. Thus, it is commonly used in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, and soaps. The ancient Greeks and Romans used olive oil enriched with herbs for cleaning and moisturizing the skin. Later, in the sixth century, French craftsmen started to make soaps from olive oil, mixing the oil with ashes from sea plants.

Olive Oil in Bible Times

In Bible times olive oil was used extensively as a food, a cosmetic, a fuel, and a medicine, as well as for other purposes. The Bible refers to olive oil more than 250 times, either as the oil itself or as the basic ingredient of perfumed oils.

The Scriptures clearly portray the important role that olive oil played in the life of a typical Israelite family. It was a key part of their diet, and its abundance was a sign of prosperity. (Joel 2:24) Both men and women used olive oil as a skin lotion. Before meeting Boaz, Ruth ‘rubbed herself with oil.’ (Ruth 3:3) After seven days of fasting, King David “got up from the earth and washed and rubbed himself with oil and changed his mantles and came to the house of Jehovah.”​—2 Samuel 12:20.

Ancient lamps required a reliable supply of olive oil. (Matthew 25:1-12) “Pure, beaten olive oil” was used to illuminate the tabernacle in the wilderness. (Leviticus 24:2) By the time of King Solomon, olive oil had become an important commodity of international trade. (1 Kings 5:10, 11) Prophets anointed kings with oil. (1 Samuel 10:1) Kindly hosts showed hospitality to guests by greasing their heads with oil. (Luke 7:44-46) The neighborly Samaritan of Jesus’ illustration treated the wounds of an injured man with oil and wine.​—Luke 10:33, 34.

In the Scriptures, soothing counsel and comfort are compared to oil because of its widespread medicinal use. The Christian disciple James wrote: “Is there anyone sick among you? Let him call the older men of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him, greasing him with oil in the name of Jehovah. And the prayer of faith will make the indisposed one well, and Jehovah will raise him up.”​—James 5:14, 15.

The riches of the olive tree are not fleeting. One olive tree can supply its owners with three to four liters of oil each year for many centuries! There is no doubt about it: This liquid gold can improve our health, soothe our skin, and enhance our food.


^ par. 7 Only extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil are direct extractions from the fruit. Refined, or common, olive oil and olive-pomace oil are chemically treated to neutralize strong flavors.

^ par. 8 These trees produce about 460 million gallons [1.7 billion L] of olive oil every year.

^ par. 12 Fruits and vegetables are also usual components of this diet.

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What You Should Know About Olive Oil

▪ The oil’s qualities last up to 18 months.

▪ Light deteriorates its components, so oil should be stored in a cool, dark place.

▪ Olive oil loses its antioxidants if used for frying more than once.

▪ Nutritionists recommend that to benefit fully from the healthful properties of olive oil, people should use it throughout life.

▪ The health benefits of olive oil are enhanced when it is used as a basic ingredient of a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fish, vegetables, legumes, and fruits.

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Traditional Process of Obtaining Olive Oil

Workers beat the branches to harvest the crop

Millstones crush the whole olives

This ancient machine was used to separate the oil from the solids

Olive oil comes out of a modern press

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Millstones and machine: Museo del Olivar y el Aceite de Baena

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Top: Centuries-old grove of olive trees

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Right: Ancient olive-oil lamp

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Lamp: Museo del Olivar y el Aceite de Baena

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Far right: An illustration of Jesus’ parable of ten virgins with oil lamps