The Olive Tree is one of the most ancient crops cultivated in the Mediterranean Basin, a base of practicing the ancient tradition of olive oil production. Known with the botanical name of Olea europea, this tree has been cultivated for agricultural purposes in this area since the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, around 5000-3500 B.C. and became one of the most fruitful trades for the populations living around the Mediterranean Basin.

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Olive tree cultivation in history

Archaeologists found proof that Ancient Egyptians dedicated themselves to olive oil production, Phoenicians spread the olive trees in Cyprus and North Africa through their trading colonies, Ancient Greeks made the olive tree cultivation a profitable business: olives and olive oil production became a pillar of the economy, so important that later the Romans extended the crops all over the Empire.

The products of olive tree cultivation became pillars of the Mediterranean diet and in general of everyday activities: olive oil was serving as a remedy for pharmaceutical purposes, ingredient for skincare and haircare and even fuel for candles or as a symbolic element in religious ceremonies. 

Olive oil production was of course an essential part of the economy and it still is in many countries nowadays: the vast majority of the olive tree cultivation and olive oil production is found in Europe, including areas of North Africa and Middle East, where the weather conditions are particularly favorable for the crops. The olive tree in fact requires mild weather conditions, as it cannot be grown in cold environments where the temperatures drop far below 0°C.

Growing olive trees

Olive tree cultivation generally requires a lot of care and attention from the farmers and the process of harvest and extraction of olive oil has remained the same, almost unchanged, for centuries. With new technologies in the modern era, a few adjustments have been done and techniques have improved, but the core of the process remains the same.

An olive tree can start giving fruits around 3 years of age in small quantities, while growing up with time, the olive tree starts to develop more and more and the production of olives increases as well.

Olive trees are an evergreen species and they are known for their longevity too: the most ancient olive tree existing on our planet is around 2000 years old (even though many think it is actually around 4000 years old) and it’s found in the Greek island of Crete. Beside this extraordinary example, which is probably one of its kind, many old olive trees can be found all around the Mediterranean, ranging from 500 to 800 years old, many of them still giving fruits every year. But, let’s take look eventually on how the olive oil is made.

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How the olive oil is made through the production stages

Olive trees are cultivated for two main purposes: table olives and olive oil production. Spain, Italy, Greece and some countries of North Africa like Morocco and Tunisia, are the main producers of olive oil in the Mediterranean Basin: many different varieties of olive trees can be found in each country, resulting in many different kinds of olive oil. Depending on factors like olive tree variety, type of soil, weather conditions and more, the olive oil production can vary in different countries, offering different colors, aromas and nutritional content of the olive oil produced. 

Despite the differences that can be found in the final product, the olive oil, the process of cultivation, harvest and extraction is more or less the same everywhere. When the olive tree starts to give fruits in great quantities, it is considered suitable for agricultural purposes.

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1. Harvest: when and how olives are picked

The best time to pick the fruits from the olive tree can be tricky to establish: in general, the rule followed sees the fruits in their optimum maturity stage, when their color is between green and black. At this stage, the olives contain the perfect amount of oil in the most perfect nutritional conditions: if the olives are left on the tree, they will overcome this stage and the fruit’s content will start to deteriorate, even if it’s not visible from the outside.

While the olive turns black and seems to look still healthy, on the inside, the components will start to oxidize, losing precious polyphenol content as the acidity level rises. 

Olives do not usually reach the perfect stage for harvest all together, even if they are found on the same tree: that’s why depending on the availability and capacity of the farmers, the harvest starts when the majority of the olive trees are near this stage. 

Olives can be harvested in different ways, always keeping in mind the integrity of the fruit in order to get a high quality olive oil: only healthy olives in good conditions can give good olive oil, as damaged or spoiled olives are more likely to deteriorate internally as well. The olives are usually harvested by hand or with the help of mechanical means, depending on the area where the cultivation is found.

The hand harvest requires time and manpower, so it can be a challenging and expensive method for farmers to use, although it’s considered as the most delicate way of harvesting the olive fruits and preserving their integrity. This method is often supported by mechanical technologies that help the olives to detach from the branch more quickly. The olives fall on the ground on top of nets, placed beforehand to collect all the fruits and easily transfer them in storage boxes.

Take a look at our harvest from last year here.

2. Extraction process

After picking, the olives are transferred as quickly as possible to the olive press inside plastic or wood boxes to preserve them from being damaged: at the olive press, the olives are all gathered in what is called “feeding hopper”, a big tank from which the olives pass before heading to the washing machine, which eliminates all kinds of extra material (like small branches, stones etc.). The washed olives are then sent to the mill where they are crushed: in ancient times, the mills were composed of heavy stones or pieces of wood that were used to crush the olives moving in circles. Nowadays most of the machines use metallic crushers.

The paste obtained by crushing the olives is stirred slowly in order to free the oil from the mix, which also contains water component and debris of the pits. The mix is finally centrifuged and filtered in order to obtain the final product, olive oil.

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3. Storage

The olive oil is then stored in different ways, paying attention to choosing a material that:

  1. is compatible with oil in order to avoid absorption

2. can protect the oil from UV rays and air (the contact with oxygen leads to oxidation of the olive oil)

3. can maintain the preferable storage temperature for olive oil  which is around 10°C.

If you want to know more about olive oil packaging, click here.

Olive tree cultivation and olive oil production represent an invaluable source of benefit in our society, culturally and economically: for thousands of years this agricultural practice and its fruits have supported endless communities and populations in the Mediterranean Basin, enriching their lives with a special gift from nature whose benefits are incomparable. 

We are grateful to be part of it through our passion and our work, striving to offer you the best olive oil and olive-based products.

All information was sourced from “The Miracle of Olive Oil and Table Olives” by Apostolos K. Kiritsakis M.Sc, Ph.D. & Eleftheria Karamesinis-Kiritsakis M.Sc.

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