It is believed that the olive tree was brought to ancient Greece from the middle east but it was here that it was cultivated systematically for the first time in the Mediterranean area some 6000 years ago. Since then no other plant has been so closely interwoven with the culture and everyday life of the Greeks.
Greek poet Odysseas Elytis once said:
"If you decompose Greece, you’ll end up with an olive tree, a grapevine and a ship. Which means: with just as much, you can build Greece anew".
The Champions of the Olympic Games were crowned in antiquity with an olive wreath, while olive oil is not missing from the Orthodox ceremonies.
Athens, according to Greek mythology, was named after goddess Athena because she offered to the Athenians the olive tree, winning thus her rival Poseidon who had offered them water, something that Athens always lacked.
Perhaps only in Greece one can find a whole category of dishes named after their basic ingredient: olive oil. These dishes are called "λαδερά" (laderà) which translates to something like "oily dishes". And it is in Greece that you will find by far the highest yearly consumption of olive oil per person today.
While this peculiarity of Greek traditional cuisine is well known, one should not neglect another: Probably in no other European country, people like to eat their pasta with bread. Wheat has been and still is the basic food constituent. While today globalised trade and industrialised food processing makes it easy to organise the supply of sufficient basic food, in the beginning of the 20th century a major agricultural reform was put forward in order to overcome the dependence of Greece on imports.
This short historical summary aims at pointing out that the Greek landscape today looks much different than it used to do three generations ago. Olive trees were not ubiquitous as they are today. Most of the terroir has been used whenever possible for the cultivation of wheat, lentils, chickpeas etc.
This and the mountainous geographical relief have led to a very small average of land ownership per farmer which in turn helped to nurture self-sustaining families during the first half of the 20th century. Each family had to have at least a few olive trees to produce the olive oil they needed, usually along with other cultures in the same small field. This might be one reason why so many olive varieties have survived on the Hellenic territory. It is estimated that Greece is the host of around 80 different olive cultivars.
Although small land holders can not compete with modern agricultural concepts such as mono-cultures and over-intensive agriculture, Greece is the 3rd biggest producer of olive oil in Europe and the 4th worldwide. And while in Greece large quantities of olive oil are traditionally exported, it is only recently that one can observe more systematic efforts to highlight and promote the gastronomic wealth of Greek olive oil varieties and terroir. The main olive oil producing regions of Greece are Peloponnesus (Messinia, Lakonia, Ilia) and Crete (Heraklion and Chania). They account for about 75% of the Greek olive oil production.
In addition to the well-known Koroneiki, which accounts for over 90% of Greek olive oil production, extra virgin olive oil from many lesser known varieties such as Tsounati, Manaki, Megaritiki, Chalkidiki etc. are constantly winning distinctions at the most prestigious international olive oil competitions and are gaining well deserved recognition both for their organoleptic characteristics and their high content in polyphenols (antioxidants beneficial for the health).