Senses of Oil

Olive oil is a mystery yet untold.  Few have witnessed is grandeur while many have dismissed it.  Over centuries past, it has a way of doing that to someone.   It becomes a part of your defining moments in life yet stays idle in the shadows until you notice it lurking from the corners of your mind and senses.

It is said that one needs all five senses to fully experience the wonders of this substance.  Of course, wisdom is not to be ignored, but it should also be explored.  When all these senses align, olive oil gives rise to a sixth sense transcending the boundaries of pragmatism and tangibility.


I was 12 years old when I first walked into an olive mill.  My father, who was just getting back into harvesting and producing oil after a lengthy hiatus away from a long family tradition, took me there to witness the process.  The mill was nestled deep in the middle of the stretching olive groves which covered the rolling hills of the island, hidden away from plain sight.  It was an old building made from stone and had a distinctive smoke stack protruding high up in the air.  The lull of the engines from the press could faintly be heard from outside but were like voices tempting me to enter.  As I walked through the unimpeded entrance, I noticed that the floor was slightly slippery, almost wet, and sacks of olives stacked to the side, but the odour that filled my nostrils was one that stayed with me till now.

It was a fruity smell that had a faint hint of saturated richness.  It was an aroma that gave a punch like a fighter, yet had the silkiness of lady.  Images of black, ripe olives hanging from the olive branch and leaves, glistening in the sun, swaying in the gentle breeze, gently falling to the ground rushed to my mind. It intrigued my innermost emotions and gave me a tingling sensation which triggered an addiction for which there would be no cure for.

In fact, one of the senses, the olfactory – sense of smell – is used to identify olive oils.  Testers use this method first to perceive the quality or type of olive oil.  As these testers directly smell the oil samples, molecules go through the nose and hit the olfactory nerve ending which triggers a perception reaction.

The International Olive Oil Council has identified attributes to describe the initial olfactory perception to determine the fruitiness of the olive.  In general, the fruity attribute refers to the characteristics of the olive. Olive fruitiness is generally a result of the degree of ripeness of the olives when they were milled. Unripe fruitiness will tend to have more of a grassy characteristic while ripe fruitiness will tend to be less aggressive. This is how smelling the olive oil and exhaling through the nose will help you perceive an oil’s fruitiness.

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Back in the olive mill, the modern press was roaring away; engulfing the olives, sorting out the olives with the earthy debris, washing them, and then crushing them into a fine pulp, until at the end, a golden stream of olive oil flows out of the pipe into containers.  The weary looking yet satisfied harvesters were patiently warming themselves around the dainty, steel charcoal stove for their olive oil to be extracted.  They handed me a plastic cup and instructed me to fill it with the olive oil coming out of the pipe.  They had fresh bread toasting on the fire and they poured some of the fresh oil on it.  They gave me a slice and I took a hearty bite.  The taste of the fresh oil mildly hit the tip of my tongue first and then as I swallowed, another more snappy sensation formed at the back of my throat.   It was like a thrilling roller-coaster ride of the palate.

Another sense, the gustatory – sense of taste – is also used to identify an olive oil.  Taste panels use this sense to describe the attributes of the olive oil, which can have positive as well as negative ones.  They use this method for a more intense experience and more accurate description because once in our mouth, the scent from the oil is exhaled back over the olfactory and goes through an alternative route- the retro-nasal passage – which connects the mouth to the nose.  Hence, there is an important dual action taking place.

The tasters warm the oil before tasting it (and smelling) – ideally to 28°C – in order to make the aromatic substances more volatile.  The more prominent the volatiles, the more one will experience the oil’s aromatics.   The positive attributes that have been recognized by the IOC are the oil’s bitterness which is a characteristic taste of oil obtained from green olives or olives turning colour, and pungency which starts in the mouth and has a delayed, stinging reaction in the throat.  On the other hand, the negative attributes recognized come from either defective fruit, or poor processing techniques.  They include fustiness, musty/humid, muddy sediment, rancidity, winey/vinegary, metallic, and earthy.  Let’s just say that you do not want your oil to have any one of these negative attributes.

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Ancient Greece and athletics always fascinated me.   Growing up, I participated in many sports.  It took great work ethic and discipline to achieve success, be it in teams or going at it alone.  No one knew this better than the Spartans.  Every Spartan boy was regularly trained to take part in athletic competitions.  They would set rigorous physical activities in order to make them better warriors.  They were the first to perform sport in the nude, both men and women but in same-sex segregation, and to anoint their naked bodies with olive oil.  Scholars have suggested that this practice ritualized anointing and was a celebration of the human body in glistening nudity; the oil heightened the body’s erotic charge.

Although never adopting the same ritual before my sporting events, it always intrigued me how the athletes felt with olive oil covering their entire body.  What was so enticing to make your body glisten with this mysterious and slippery substance?  How did it make these Spartans feel before engaging in an athletic event, and more importantly, what were the somatosensory effects it had on them?   Well, what better way than to get my system stimulated like a Spartan warrior’s than to anoint my figure in organic extra virgin olive oil.

Jumping into the shower with a bottle of my family-produced olive oil, I proceeded to begin my experiment.  Lost in the procedural intricacies of such an operation, I just started from the top and dumped a vast amount of oil on my head and allowed it drip down every so smoothly to the rest of my eagerly awaiting body.  I let it subside and waited for my stimuli to kick into gear.  The sensation was one of utter rawness and beauty.  My tactile functions heightened and my skin felt alive.  It was like an armour coating my body which gave me supremacy.  It truly aroused my senses and piqued my body’s erotic liberation.  Even days after of this Spartan ritual, my skin and hair radiated a stronger and healthier glow than ever before.

Over the years, starting from the time of Hippocrates, olive oil was used for medicinal purposes as well as a beautifying agent. Especially for external use, it was thought to have an effect on sensory receptors covering the skin and to stimulate the somatic senses.  Scientifically, a body’s system reacts to diverse stimuli using different receptors, transmission of information from the receptors passes via sensory nerves through tracts in the spinal cord and into the brain.  This stimulation of the nerve endings, and a possible increase in blood flow, is like a turbo charge for the brain and body that was beneficial for any physical activity, such as athletics, and also aroused the eroticism of one’s own body.

Additionally, the antioxidant property of olive oil has the natural ability to stimulate cells and return skin, and condition hair, to a firmer, smoother, and healthier state.  It is a natural, hypoallergenic substance that moisturizes the skin to make it smooth and supple.  These effects are the true beauty of extra virgin olive oil.

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My father knows exactly where the family groves are located.  There are no road signs, no GPS gadgets, no one to stop and ask for directions; he knows the path from natural markers and a feel for the area.  His father and grandfather used donkeys to steer their way, now it’s with vehicles, yet stillas challenging.  Veering off the main road, adjacent to the cool Mediterranean blue, a reddish clay-dirt road sproutsand weaves its way into the serene green yonder.  Slowly treading forward on narrow roads, vibrant village homes become sparse as the groves grow dense and engulf the sea behind us.  The rays hit the leaves and their green tint light our path clear for take-off.  We reach the halfway point on cue at the sight of our revealing marker; a magnificent olive tree splitting the road in half like an axe chopping wood.  Standing stout with its drooping branches and trunk intertwining like two lovers in bliss, it plays guardian to the city of liquid gold and its ancient secrets that lie within.  Man paved the road to go around the tree, not through it.  Here, at this point, a mutual respect lies between man and tree; one that allowed progress and antiquity to live side-by-side.

The olive tree, which gives us its fruit, the olive, provides us also with the by-product of cultivation, olive oil.  The Oleaeuropaea is drought-, disease- and fire-resistant, and thus, can live to a great age.  Scientists have found a tree to be 2,000 years old.  Over centuries, people have co-existed with this tree creating a livelihood around it, romanticising with it, fighting for it, fighting against it, while it stands and swaying to the ever changing winds.  It has been cited by writers in their literature more than any other plant.  The Bible mentions it 30 times.   A tree in Athens is said to be a remnant of the grove that Plato’s Academy was situated making it 2,400 years old.  One can stand under the shade of an olive tree that could have provided the same relief to King Leonidas en route to Thermopylae.

The importance of the olive tree and its fruit is apparent throughout history and in our modern times.  Many people have lived and are living off the tree, producing and selling olive oil; it has been used as fuel for lighting lamps;it was and is used for healing; used as a lubricant for making machines run; used as currency; being groomed to be a renewable energy source; and of course, providing sustenance.  The olive tree was the sacred tree of the goddess Athena and of Athens. It is little wonder that those who preserve this symbiotic legacy for future generations still consider it sacred.

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Standing under the protective covering of the olive branches, the wind blows gently swaying the tress in an unchoreographed dance.  The tree filled horizon moves to the tune of the breeze as the sea of light and dark green tint forms waves that crash on the foot of the mountain.  The rustling of the leaves creates a hypnotic hymn as if the trees are communicating to eachother.  The olive tree I am standing under makes a whistling sound whispering and assuring me that all is right.

The Greeks and Italians have a saying that when you prune your trees, a swallow should be able to fly through them.  This means that the shape to aim for is one that allows light and air into the centre of the tree.  The importance of this is that it helps to keep the olive tree a manageable size, by removing old wood, encourages new fruiting wood to emerge and keeps the tree youthful, and it prevents pests and diseases from taking hold.  The pruning stage prepares the tree for its harvesting period.  The primary objective is to produce dense clusters that can be stripped off the tree in great showers.

Farmers say that olive flowers that are in deep shade will not set in large numbers. The olive fruits that do will not produce good levels of oil.  Light and more light is the overwhelming principle of pruning. Letting the light into the tree improves fruit production. Letting in the light and air also keeps the tree under control.

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My father told us a story of my grandfather, whom I never had the chance to meet.  Living on an occupied Greek isle during World War II meant that to survive, one would have to live off the land from whatever one could produce.  Thus, olive oil was a major source of survival.  However, it was more than that.  Since food was scarce, and my grandfather had to feed his family of seven to survive those brutal years, he risked his life to provide; the only thing to barter with was the valuable olive oil he produced.

Operating in the still of the night, he would fill clay jugs of olive oil, get on a small boat, and transport them to northern Greece.  There, he would trade the olive oil with monks in return for vegetables, fruits, and sometimes livestock.  He would then make the return trip with the same type of operation all without getting caught.  Being spotted meant death, but he did it for his children to be able to have a chance to lead fruitful lives.  And this could be done by trading the much valued olive oil for life.

This is the sixth sense of olive oil; its essence.  It is an intangible quality that goes beyond the traditional five senses.   When these five senses come together, it’s like a key that unlocks a hidden layer.

Over history, olive oil has been beneficial to many people in different ways.  It has been used in a medicinal nature treating patients with skin diseases, gynaecological problems, kidney stones, intestinal worms, cardiovascular diseases, and even snoring.

It has been deemed sacred in religions.  For example, during baptism in the Christian church, holy oil, which is often olive oil, may be used for anointment. At the Christmas mass, olive oil blessed by the bishop, “chrism”, is used in the ceremony.The name Christ comes from the Greek word Kristos — the anointed one.Even 1,400 years ago, the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, advised his followers to apply olive oil to their bodies.

It has been the cause of wars, such as the Olive Wars between the Palestinians and Israelis due to its valuable nature, as both cultures grew, and grow, them to gain control of the land.

The olive tree branch has been used to stop wars as it is considered the tree of peace.  In 1775, the American Continental Congress adopted the “Olive Branch Petition” in the hope of avoiding a full-blown war with Great Britain.  Even in ancient Roman times, on a medal of Emperor Augustus, Peace holds in one hand a branch of olive, and in the other a lighted torch with which she has just fired a pile of martial trophies, indicative of the extinction of war.

It has been the cause of expanding trade and wealth, as well as used as a currency for bartering.  By as early as 3,000B.C. in Crete, the olive was widely cultivated and a very prized commodity. Very sophisticated ships loaded with earthenware amphorae were built solely for the olive oil trade.

The olive tree has been given its own place on the Celtic horoscope as it was considered the tree of balance.  A single day is dedicated to it, the day of the equinox: 23rd of September.

This sixth sense of olive oil can be found in countless of other examples throughout history.  However, the mystique of this substance creates a unique sixth sense for each individual.  To me, it alludes to the serenity of home, the delicate balance of life.  Nevertheless, this journey is personal and one must embark on it to make their discovery.  I just hope that I have given you just enough to find your key to unlock the magical world of olive oil.

© 2012