There’s no point in trying to find a simpler definition: olive oil is pure olive juice. Nevertheless, there’s something ultimately reassuring about the definitions handed down to us by specialists: “An oily liquid extracted from olives that varies from yellow to green depending on its origins; used in cooking, the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry, in lighting, lubrification, etc.” So writes António Manuel Monteiro in his unforgettable book “Palavras do Olival” (Words from the Olive Grove). I have never forgotten the rhyme I learnt as a child. At the time, it made me think, but only later would I come to understand it: “Green was my birth, and mourning garments did I don, to bring light to the World, a thousand torments did I take on.” The transformation of the olive is not as reductive, nor is its course so dramatic. However, it continues to be an enchanting and indispensable fruit found on many a table across Portugal. Olives gives rise to olive oil, one of the products forming the trilogy of the Mediterranean diet together with grains, used for making bread, and grapes for wine. Olive oil is so important for the geographical establishment of this diet, it is commonly said that the Mediterranean diet ends precisely where you find the last olive grove.

Literature has always been scattered with references to olive oil – especially in Classical Antiquity, from Homer’s “Iliad” to Livy’s “History of Rome”. Or in Ancient Egypt when Ramses III offered olive trees to the god Ra “so that your olive oil, symbol of life and eternity, might keep the lamps in your sanctuary alive.” Olive oil was synonymous with “by the grace of the Holy Spirit”, conscience, mercy and charity. It seems that the olive tree became the national tree of Ancient Greece when Athena caused an olive tree to spring up, thus supplanting Poseidon in the dispute for the possession of Attica. At the same time, olive oil became a key element in the worship of that goddess. Livy writes that Hannibal made the most of the heat-generating quality of olive oil, and used it to massage his soldiers in order to warm them up and give them strength. Even today, people continue to write about olive oil and olive trees, such as Sylvie Briet who states that “The history of the Mediterranean can be read on its tortured trunk.”

Naturally, the taste of olive oil depends on the type of soil and climate, and above all the different olive varieties in Portugal: Cobrançosa, Verdeal, Madural, Cordovil, Galega (Galician), Lentrisca and Carrasquenha. There are, however, some concepts associated to olive oil characteristics that do not, in fact, influence its quality, such as acidity, for example. In terms of colour, we usually find greener-looking olive oils, which mean that unripe olives were used, olive oils that are more fruity or bitter and spicy, which in no way means that they are not as good. On the other hand, and still in relation to colour, olive oils can also be more yellow as a result of using riper olives, which produce smoother-tasting olive oils. The importance of olive oil, and the need to regulate its production, led to the classification of “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil” for flawless olive oil that tastes and smells like healthy olives, has no organoleptic defects, and an acidity less than or equal to 0.8%. In short, suitable for direct consumption. “Virgin Olive Oil” is a good quality olive oil that tastes and smells like healthy olives. It has an acidity less than or equal to 2%, and may have the slightest taste and smell defects. And then we have “Olive Oil”, a designation given to refined olive oil enriched with an aromatic and fruity virgin olive oil, with an acidity less than or equal to 1%.

The diversity and richness of some of our olive oils, arising from their geographical origin, led to the recognition of the names of those regions and thus we have the following PDOs: Trás-os-Montes, Beira Interior, Ribatejo, Norte Alentejano, Moura and  Alentejo Interior. The variety in taste is related to the combination of olive varieties and, as for me, I prefer complex, slightly spicy olive oils. Like wine, I am not a great consumer of olive oils produced from only one variety of olives.

However, olive oil, whose many benefits in cooking are recognised by all, is also important in other areas. In the past, it was used to massage the bodies of high competition athletes in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and was also used for other skin treatments. And what about health benefits? In the 60s and 70s, we were practically forced to forego olive oil in favour of other vegetable oils. Even for medical reasons! Olive groves were no longer well tended; but now the scientific community is once again recommending the consumption of olive oil – for health reasons. Imagine the number of poems that were written by the light of olive oil lamps? Not to mention the fact that the olive tree is a symbol of Peace. How many more reasons do we need to honour this “Liquid Gold”?

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes