Greeks consume about 20 kilograms of olive oil a year or more, depending on the source. That corresponds to about 3-4 tablespoons a day, almost ¼ of a cup. To put that in perspective, in the United Kingdom the average consumption of olive oil is 1 liter a year which corresponds to only half a teaspoon a day.
Olive oil is a deep-rooted component of Greek life. In antiquity olive oil along with bread and wine, made up the food ideology of the ancient Greeks. It was a fundamental food and represented loyalty, frugality and the simple life. It was used in almost all foods served at the ancient Greek table.
As the years went by olive oil maintained its presence, but during periods of poverty and war is when olive oil came through for the Greeks. It was used as sustenance when other foods were not available or could not be afforded. Greeks used what the land gave them: and that was olives, olive oil and plants. Olive oil was added to various vegetables and greens in order to provide calories and satiety. A whole meal was made just by cooking any seasonal vegetables or plants with olive oil and herbs. We see this very clearly in Crete when in the 1940’s U.S. researchers studied their living standards and noticed that they ate large amounts of wild greens (horta) and other vegetables with large amounts of olive oil.
Was this healthy? Definitely. Those U.S. researchers surprisingly noted that the Cretan diet of olive oil, greens and wine met their nutritional needs. This combination of vegetables and olive oil was the basis of what we now know as the Mediterranean diet.
So how do Greeks manage to consume so much olive oil today? Well they still use olive oil for most of their cooking needs. Fortunately olive oil is still prized for its flavor but also it health benefits. Although several other oils and fats have entered the Greek market, they are only used for specific cooking needs.
In Greece, olive oil is used on salads, but the largest use of olive oil is during cooking. While other countries use olive oil raw and mainly for drizzling on salads or bread, Greeks actually cook with olive oil sautéing, roasting and frying with it. There is even a whole category of foods called lathera which comes from the Greek word for olive oil: lathi. The term literally means “the olive oil ones” and is mainly vegetables cooked in olive oil. It is often noted that one should not fry with olive oil, various reasons are given for this such as smoke point, the olive oil becomes cancerogenic and many other claims. The truth is that Mediterranean countries particularly Greece and southern Italy fried with olive oil for decades and those very people who fried with olive oil, had the lowest rates of heart disease and the highest life expectancy. But apart from that observation, scientifically speaking extra virgin olive oil actually has a high smoke point and if you know how to fry correctly you will never exceed that smoke point.
Olive oil is also used many desserts and cakes, not only are they healthier but olive oil imparts a depth of flavor that you do not get with other vegetable and seed oils.
In the past years Greeks started using other fats in their cooking, and appeared to take olive oil for granted since it literally “grows on trees”. However, it continued to be a staple in the Greek kitchen. These days olive oil is not only a staple but it is making a come back, becoming the “in” ingredient to use. Younger generations are helping olive oil become once again a precious component of the cuisine and lifestyle. Numerous Greek producers are presenting wonderful olive oils and popular and talented chefs sing the praises olive oil bringing it once again into the spotlight.
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