Olive Oil and Wine in the Mediterranean Diet

Olive oil and wine are two key components of the Mediterranean diet that have been used for thousands of years and are an essential part of the culture, cuisine, and lifestyle of Mediterranean countries.

Olive oil and wine came to the Mediterranean people almost simultaneously, about 4000 or 5000 years BC. It’s not that we handle time so easily and a thousand years is just a mathematical error for us. Of course, it was a period of numerous events that influenced the fate of many generations. But in fact, we really do not have more accurate data.

So most likely, around 5000 BC, the ancient Mediterranean people got acquainted with olive oil, and hundreds of years later they first tasted wine. And, as we can see in both cases, the acquaintance was successful and grew into a long and very close relationship.

The Introduction of Olive Oil to the Mediterranean Diet 

In those ancient times, when people living around the Mediterranean did not yet know what the Mediterranean diet was, they somehow understood that oil could be pressed from the fruits of the olive tree. We don’t know what it tasted like and probably never will unless we invent the time machine.

Also, we don’t know where and how exactly wild olives were first domesticated by the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean. Of course, in every country (and maybe in every province) you will be told that it was their ancestors who were the first. It’s okay, we’re all still humans.

We almost certainly know that it was the Phoenicians who taught the Greeks about olive oil. The Phoenicians are believed to have brought the olive tree and its fruit to the Greeks from the eastern Mediterranean region, specifically from their own homeland in the area that is now Lebanon and Syria.

However, no one knows whether the Phoenicians learned to cultivate the olive or spied on it in some of the neighboring Mediterranean countries.

The exact timeline of when the olive tree first arrived in the Greeks is not clear, as there is limited historical documentation from that period. However, it is generally believed that the Phoenicians played a significant role in the spread of the olive tree throughout the Mediterranean region, including Greece.

The Phoenician maritime traders and pirates were known for their outstanding seafaring skills. They established wide and strong networks throughout the Mediterranean, by being a kind of indispensable link between the various peoples and cultures of the region.

Having met any interesting phenomenon in one of the countries, they did not miss the opportunity to benefit from its distribution. So, they likely brought olive saplings with them on their ships and successfully presented them to the Greeks. And then, as it usually happens, sales went like clockwork.

Olive trees have taken root very well in Greece. Greek olive oil has become liquid gold and a national treasure. Having provided their own needs in olive oil, the Greeks began to sell this gold to other countries. So olive oil became the main source of export income and prosperity for many cities and provinces of ancient Greece.

The Greeks first brought olive oil to the territory of modern Italy around the 8th century BC, just at the time of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus.
First, olive trees appeared on the territory of southern Italy, which at that time was colonized by the Greeks. These were the territories of modern Apulia, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily.

Then the olive began its journey to the north of the Apennine Peninsula and reached the Etruscans, who inhabited the territory of modern Tuscany.

At first, northern Italy’s inhabitants mainly used olive oil as a cosmetic and fuel for lamps. Perhaps the reason for this was the abundance of grains and vegetables, as well as meat, poultry, and fish, which made up a large part of their Mediterranean diet. In other words, there was enough food already.

In addition, the climate of the north of Italy did not allow for the same bountiful harvest of olives as the south enjoyed. Therefore, olive oil was not a frequent visitor to the homes of northerners and was not incorporated into their daily culinary tradition.

Olive oil was most widely used in Rome in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC, during the conquest of Greece by Rome. The victors adopted so much from the vanquished that there was even a popular joke, “First we conquered Greece, and then their culture conquered us, savages”.

Of course, they were not savages, but the influence of Greece manifested itself in everything: literature, culture, mythology, philosophy, art, crafts, and everyday household traditions, including cooking. At the same time, it must be admitted that the Romans did not blindly copy other people’s traditions, but adapted and built them into their system, developing and improving borrowed technologies.

The same thing happened with olive oil. From the 3rd century BC until the end of the reign of the last Roman emperor named Romulus (a familiar name, isn’t it?), the production of olive oil became a real matter of national importance.

The consumption of olive oil skyrocketed and very soon it was in short supply. The solution to the problem was the import of olive oil from Spain, which at that time was a colony of Rome.

Spanish olive oil was of high quality and highly valued in Rome. However, it was not enough to meet the needs of the growing empire. So the Romans, with their characteristic rationalism, business sense, and iron discipline, began to develop production.

The results were not long in coming. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of Spanish lands began to be covered with olive groves. At the end of each autumn, hundreds of ships loaded with olive oil sailed from Baetica (now Andalusia, “land of Vandals”) to Rome.

Rome was saved. And Spain became the #1 producer of olive oil in the world, which it still is.
Moreover, today most of the olive oil produced by famous Italian olive brands is made from olives grown in Spain.

Every autumn, like in the good old days, hundreds of ships sail from Spain to Italy. They bring dead olives from which bad olive oil will be made. Why so? Because olives live only a few hours to one day after harvest. If you failed to extract the oil on the same day, it is not extra virgin, it’s poison.

How Did Wine Enter the Mediterranean Diet?

Wine is a key part of Mediterranean culture and lifestyle. In Mediterranean countries, meals are often enjoyed with family and friends, and wine is typically consumed in moderation as part of a social gathering or celebration. This social aspect of food and wine consumption is also believed to contribute to the overall health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

The cultivation of grapevines in the Mediterranean region dates back to ancient times, with evidence of grape cultivation found in archaeological sites in modern-day Georgia and Iran dating back to 6000-5000 BC. From there, grape cultivation spread throughout the Mediterranean region, including territories that are now Greece, Italy, and Spain.

The first recorded use of grapes for winemaking in the Mediterranean region was by the ancient Greeks, who believed that wine was a gift from the gods.

Now it doesn’t matter whether they were gods or the same Phoenicians, as in the case of olive oil. The fact is the Greeks were the first to make a real industry out of the process of growing grapes and making wine.

Wine very quickly became an important part of the daily life of ancient Greek society. They used it for religious ceremonies, as well as for drinking and socializing. 

The Greeks spread wine-making techniques to other parts of the Mediterranean. The second Mediterranean civilization, which raised wine to the level of a commodity of great national importance, was the Romans.

The Romans also greatly valued wine and expanded grape cultivation throughout their empire, including the territories they conquered.

One of these territories, by the way, was France, pardon, Gaul.
Immediately after the conquest of these places by Caesar, the Romans began to teach the Gauls how to make wine.

Well, they did it. The Gauls proved to be such capable students that very soon the Romans had to impose prohibitive duties on wine from the region we now call Bordeaux.

The reason for this was the high quality and, as a result, the high demand for this wine, which threatened the well-being of Roman producers.

First, Spanish olive oil, then French wine… Apparently, something prevented the Romans from working as hard as the inhabitants of the countries they conquered did. But this is a topic for a completely different story.

Why Are Olive Oil and Wine So Important in the Mediterranean Diet and Culture of Mediterranean Countries?

Nowadays, following the Mediterranean diet is a conscious choice of a person who decides to lead a healthy lifestyle. To make this choice, we have to move away from cheap processed food and start consuming natural products, which are significantly more expensive.

This requires certain intellectual efforts and some expenses. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet is popular among educated people with stable averages and higher incomes.

But it was not always so. Originally, the Mediterranean diet is a diet of the poor.
An abundance of grains, vegetables, and beans, with an almost complete absence of red meat, was not a conscious choice, but the only option for these people.

By the way, have you ever wondered why daily physical activity is so important when following the Mediterranean diet? Because otherwise, eating grains and beans will make you fat very quickly. The ancient peasant had no problem with this since he burned more calories in a day than we do in a week now.

In those days, there were no giant meat processing plants that daily produced tons of packages of cheap bad meat and sausages. The meat was expensive, and it was worth it: they didn’t feed the animals hormones and antibiotics.

The typical diet of a commoner was rather meager. For breakfast, a bowl of oatmeal or a couple of barley tortillas and a handful of dried fruit. Lunch consisted of vegetables, beans, and, again, bread. Dinner (if any) usually included bread, some cheese, and fruit.

Once a week chicken, eggs, or fish were available. Fish and seafood were relatively inexpensive, especially in coastal areas. Red meat (beef, pork, mutton, or game) was usually eaten on holidays when meat was distributed to needy people during sacrifices.

The advent of wine and olive oil made it possible to color the dull diet of the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean.

If you have olive oil and wine, you can stew vegetables and beans with garlic and herbs instead of just boiling them. Even barley cakes are much tastier and more hearty if they are dipped in olive oil and washed down with wine.

In general, by having wine and olive oil in your house, you can diversify your menu in dozens of ways, which you can read about in any recipe book.

Nutritional Value of Olive Oil and Wine in the Mediterranean Diet

In addition to its gastronomy and culinary benefits, the introduction of olive oil and wine to the Mediterranean has greatly helped people improve the nutritional value of their diet.

Olive oil became the main source of fat in the ancient Mediterranean diet. Lack of fat is the cause of very unpleasant things, such as heart diseases, colon cancer, vitamin deficiency diseases, weaker immune system, hormonal imbalance, and others. Therefore, we need fats, both saturated and unsaturated. And in a diet poor in meat and dairy products, there are very few of them. The introduction of olive oil into the Mediterranean diet has been a real lifesaver.

Also, both olive oil and wine are rich in polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that help to protect against inflammation and oxidative stress, which are two factors that contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Speaking about polyphenols in wine, it is worth noting that we are talking primarily about dry red wine.
Red wine, in particular, is rich in polyphenols, which are mainly found in the skin and seeds of grapes. One of the most well-known polyphenols found in red wine is resveratrol, which has been shown to have numerous health benefits.

Why red wine and not white? Because the average polyphenol content of a 150 ml serving of red wine is approximately 140-200 mg, while the average polyphenol content of the same 148 ml serving of white wine is approximately 32-35 mg.

Red wine contains more polyphenols than white wine because the polyphenols are primarily found in the skin and seeds of the grape, which is removed during the production of white wine. The production of red wine begins with a process called maceration which is a key step involving soaking the grape skins, seeds, and pulp in the fermenting juice (called must) to extract color, tannins, and flavor compounds. This process can last from several days to several weeks, depending on the desired characteristics of the wine.

However, you should not give up white wine just because it contains fewer polyphenols. Actually, the exact amount of polyphenols needed to confer health benefits are not yet clear and is still an active area of research. What we know for sure is that we need a regular supply of these substances rather than a large amount of them.

As for the content of polyphenols in olive oil, they are much less than even in white wine: a maximum of 750 mg per 1 liter.

This means that by consuming up to 50 grams of olive oil (real, farm olive oil) per day, we provide ourselves with about 30 mg. Which, as studies show, is quite enough to prolong life by 5 – 7 years and reduce the risk of cancer by 15%.

Research has shown that moderate wine consumption when consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve blood lipid profiles, and lower blood pressure. However, it is important to note that excessive alcohol consumption can have negative health effects, and the recommended amount of wine consumption is one to two glasses per day for men and one glass per day for women.

In addition to their health benefits, olive oil, and wine work together to provide even greater health benefits. When consumed together, the polyphenols in olive oil and wine work synergistically to enhance their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which can help to protect against chronic diseases.

Besides polyphenols, olive oil and wine are sources of valuable minerals, vitamins, and polyphenols, which are perfectly absorbed with daily moderate consumption.

There are some vitamins in wine and a couple of glasses of dry red wine a day will give you only 3-5% of the daily value of vitamin K, Thiamin, Niacin, and Riboflavin.
Of course, this is not much, considering that just 100 grams of beef contain more than 30% of the daily value of riboflavin.

Also, red wine contains up to 10% of the daily value of Iron, Magnesium, and Potassium and up to 20% of Manganese. Add here 50 ml of olive oil per day and you will get an additional 20% of the daily value of vitamin K and 40% of vitamin E. It’s already something, right?

I won’t bore you any longer and will say what I wanted to say.
If your diet is not varied and balanced enough, then you need to regularly visit the pharmacy and buy the missing components. There were pharmacies in the ancient Mediterranean (seriously, they were) and they could offer you herbal ointments for joint pain or herbal tinctures for constipation or fever. But you wouldn’t find a package of multivitamins there.

Therefore, the introduction of olive oil and wine into the Mediterranean diet has greatly improved people’s lives and made these foods really important. Although, to say “important” is to say nothing. Wine and olive oil are symbols of the Mediterranean diet; they are the basis and necessary condition for a prosperous life.

Thousands of years have passed since those days. Do you think something has changed? While traveling through Mediterranean Europe, talk to the villagers. Ask these people what needs to happen for them to stop consuming olive oil and wine every day. Let us know what they say, okay?

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