The Language Of Olive Oil: A Personal History

MikeachimItaly7 Comments



Your first few seconds inside a dolmadaki are all-important: it’s the home of that first intense pop of freshness, a blast of rice, mint, lemon juice, pine nut and whatever else has been added to the mix. It’s probably best to ram the whole oily parcel in your mouth before you bite down, unless you’re tackling the larger variety, the spring roll sized dolmades

In which case you spear it with a fork or pick it up ‘twixt fingers, and bite it in half – and olive oil runs down your chin, every damn time.


It’s 1976. I’m sat…somewhere in Cyprus. I’m eating stuffed vine leaves with my fingers, and since I haven’t got my head round the socially difficult piece of food technology known as a “napkin”, I’m carefully wiping my fingers on my shorts when my mum isn’t looking. Olive oil is getting everywhere. I check my ears to see if they’re oil-free, and suddenly they’re not. I rub my fingers together….

No, it’s 2006. I’m back in Cyprus, 30 years older, at a taverna with friends. I have a napkin and I know how to use it, but instead I’m marvelling at the feel of the oil on my fingers, thinking about everything I now know of its use in the ancient world. The Romans used this as an alternative to soap? Didn’t their togas get smeary? Did they have the equivalent of Stain Devils back then? (Yes they did, and it’s still around today, under the popular brand name of “urine”).

The taste and feel of olive oil flings me around my own timeline, as if I’m the star of a gastronomic version of Quantum Leap. When it’s married with the tang of lemon juice and kalamari, I’m on the beach at Ayia Napa before it became one of Europe’s clubbing capitals, before I paddled away from the beach on my air-bed, which I promptly fell off and nearly drowned. When it’s spiced with nutmeg I’m at the University of York, making moussaka for my housemates. And dolmades? I could be anywhere – but I always have olive oil on my chin.

I’ve spent most of my life drinking, pouring, licking and dabbing at olive oil – but it’s only in the last 10 years that I’ve started to truly understand it.



I’m standing in the restaurant area of La Penisola, a country resort on the shore of Umbria’s Corbara lake. It’s evening, and I’m sweating, not because it’s warm (Italy is proving unusually rainsome for this time of year) but because I think I may actually die if I have any more food in the next 24 hours. There are bottles on a table in front of me, ranging from pale yellow to blackened green. I’m about to learn something profound about olive-oil tasting.

Olive oil tasting? If asked beforehand, I’d have said this: “take a sip, swill it round. It’s not exactly rocket science, is it?”

Here’s a brief introduction to the rocket science of olive-oil tasting.

1. Watch Alex of Virtual Wayfarer run through the basics, including almost choking to death because Umbrian olive oil is that rich and spicy. (And that’s me behind the camera, laughing at him. Yes, I’m heartless).

2. Pay attention to the warming of the sample glass in your hands. This releases both the flavour and aroma of the oil, which is why keeping olives cool in transportation is so crucial to the quality of the oil they’ll create.

3. Once you’ve sucked air-bubbles into the oil laying on your tongue and taken your first taste, keep your mouth closed and breathe out through your nose. This will give you your second “retronasal” attempt to separate our and identify all the flavours in the oil.

Yes, flavours. Ever wondered what that “Extra Virgin” labelling is all about? It’s like the difference between cheap bourbon and single-malt Scotch. “Virgin” designates oil that has been processed without the aid of chemicals – in contrast, the cheaper non-virgin blends you find in supermarkets have been chemically treated to neutralize their acidity, a process that also robs them of some of their flavour. Extra Virgin oil is the very best untreated oil with no more than 0.8% acidity (free oleic acid), a level of smoothness that allows you to taste a mix of up to 30 phenols, the same naturally-occuring chemical compounds that give whisky its famous smoky, peaty taste. If you’re attending a professional olive oil tasting session, they’re using Extra Virgin oils.

Every year Umbria produces around 30,000-60,000 tons of olives, all of which get fed into mills to produce oil. Sound like a lot? It’s just a few drips of Italy’s annual olive oil output (some 550,000 tons of oil a year) – but it’s also some of the country’s best. Umbrian olive oil is a luxury item. The land can only support some 27,000 hectares, limiting its growth as an industry but bolstering its exclusivity.

What is olive oil for?

It’s for mopping up with bread – sprinkled with salt if you’re using Umbrian bread, since Pope Paul III‘s tax on salt put paid to its use in breadmaking. It’s for cooking, of course. And it’s for time-travel (I can’t be the only one, surely). But go back 50 years and you’d be hard-pressed – excuse the wretched pun – to find it being used outside the Mediterranean. The presence of olive oil on the world’s supermarket shelves is a modern invention, thanks in part to Spain’s industrial-scale hold on the industry – 30% of global production levels, with Italy and Greece taking the silver & bronze. Before the 1960s, olive oil was indeed “liquid gold”: precious, expensive and a long way from being a shopping-list recurring ingredient. You’d have to go back 2,000 years to find olive-oil production anywhere near modern levels.

So what did they use olive oil for? All of the above, for lamp fuel…and to get clean.

You’re looking at a strigil – invented by the Greeks, adopted wholesale by the Romans (a pattern repeated everywhere you look in Classical history). The Romans didn’t use soap, a nasty barbarian invention born of animal fats and other atrocities – instead, they sweated the grime out of their skin with a series of hot and cold baths, rubbed themselves in olive oil and scraped themselves clean and supple with a variety of implements, chiefly the strigil. Archaeologists have found strigiles everywhere in the former Roman Empire – I first encountered the name on my first archaeological dig in East Sussex.


(From the Latin strigilis, itself derived from stringere  – ‘touch lightly’)


All foods have their own language. Olive oil is spoken in Greek, in Latin, in Spanish, in modern Italian, and shaped by scientific terms derived from Greek and Latin. In a way I’m twice removed from the language of liquid gold – my Greek is fragmentary and my Italian laughable – but it’s also weirdly familiar. My first language is built of Greek and Latin roots and is of the same Indo-European family – but I also hear echoes of the words spoken around me in ’70s Cyprus as I crammed vine leaves in my craw with greasy fingers. It’s alien and homely, all at once. I can barely speak a word of it, but what little I know bewitches me. It speaks of a different relationship to food than I’m accustomed to, it speaks of a hundred generations of human history – and it appears in virtually every childhood memory I have. In an odd sort of way…it feels like home.

My tour of the Umbrian countryside after TBU Umbria was an extraordinary barrage of delights, and by the time I was standing in La Penisola, warming my oil glass in my hands, I was overwhelmed (with gratitude, with food, with…whelm, generally). But I can still smell the oils we were testing, each one distinct even to my untrained nose, and I can still feel the gentle burning of the oil as it hit the back of my throat.

I hear its language whispering to me…

And I’m lost in time once more.

My thanks to Travel Bloggers Unite, Umbria On The BlogLa Penisola and everyone I met in Italy, without exception. Yes, really.

Ever hankered to learn about Italian food from the professionals? Check out La Penisola’s Life School: Live Italian Food Experience.

Images: SigmundD, Matthias Kabel / Wikimedia Commons and Mike Sowden.