Olive oil is not what you think it is. According to Tom Mueller, the author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, an olive is a stone fruit like a plum or cherry—meaning that the green-gold liquid we extract from it “is, quite literally, fruit juice.” And, while we’re blowing your minds, have you ever stopped to wonder what “extra virgin” means? “It’s like extra dead or semi-pregnant,” Mueller said. “I mean, it doesn’t make any sense at all.” This episode we visit two groves—one in the Old World, one in the New—to get to the bottom of olive oil’s many mysteries. Listen in this episode as we find out why the ancient Romans rubbed it all over their bodies, and whether the olive oil on our kitchen counters really is what it says on the label.
Olive oil’s original home lies along the shores of the Mediterranean, where its wild ancestor, the oleaster, can still be found today. Somehow, people realized that the bitter berry from these hardy trees tasted excellent when brined in salt and, even better, could be crushed to produce a liquid fat that was not only delicious but, Mueller says, burns as hot as benzene and has twice the heat-energy content of carbon. By the seventh century BCE, olive-oil production was taking place at industrial scale: Olive presses excavated at Ekron, in modern-day Israel, were capable of producing 500,000 liters of oil a year. The demand was equally enormous: Olive oil powered lamps and preserved and enhanced food, and it was used as an all-purpose medicine, a contraceptive—even an aphrodisiac. Olive oil was so critical to Greek and Roman culture that wars were fought over it and fortunes made, much like the petroleum sheikhs of today.