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The Olive Tree

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The city of Athens was named after Athena the goddess of wisdom. Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea, both wanted to be the protectors of the newly built city. Zeus asked them to offer a gift to the people of the city and let them decide which gift was the most useful. Poseidon offered a well so that people would always have water. Athena offered the olive tree which gave people food from the olives, light from the oil (they used oil lamps back then) and warmth from the wood. Athena won the contest and gave her name to the city.

The olive tree was very important to ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean Basin. It was connected to their diet and their religion, and was used as a decorative motif on vases, in gold jewellery and elsewhere. It was considered a symbol of peace, wisdom and victory. The winners at the Olympic games were crowned with a wreath of olive. Olive oil was also used as medicine. Hippocrates mentions 60 different conditions which could be treated with olive oil. Homer referred to it as the "liquid gold".

Recent archaeological research on the island of Santorini brought to light fossilized olive leaves which are 50.000-60.000 years old. Its cultivation started over 6000 years ago. Artefacts and archaeological remains of the most ancient Mediterranean civilizations provide evidence that olive tree cultivation and olive oil production are among the most important activities in the agricultural economy of Mediterranean countries and in their trade relations with neighbouring people.

The olive tree thrives in Mediterranean climates with mild winters and hot, dry summers. Optimum cultivation altitude starts at sea level and goes up to 400 meters. The olive tree is very robust and can live and be productive for several centuries. In Vouves on the island of Crete there is an olive tree about 3000 years old and still producing olives!

The olive tree prefers calcareous soils and can endure long periods of drought thanks to its extensive root system. Its bigger enemy is very low temperatures. All the tree needs is good pruning once a year.

The olives are harvested between November and February depending on the variety of the tree and the location. The whole process is done manually so that the fruit is not bruised, and this leads to superior quality olive oil. The olives are taken to the oil mills the same day they are harvested. The soonest the olives are pressed the better the quality of the oil and the lower its acidity.