History of the Cretan olive oil: From the Minoan diet to today’s Crete

The history of the Cretan olive oil dates back to Minoan Crete. If there is something constant in the turbulent and complicated history of Crete, this is the timeless love of the Cretan people for olive oil.

It is not a secret that Crete was the first European soil in history that olive trees were grown systematically, and the olive oil was extracted from them. The ancient Minoans had olive oil in their diet thousands of years ago.

Cretan olive oil in history: its role in the minoan diet

Olive oil was produced and consumed in Crete at least since the beginning of the zenith of the Minoan civilization in 2.000 BC. As evidenced by numerous archaeological findings, olive oil was a cornerstone in the Minoan diet, the ancient ancestor of today’s Cretan diet.

Indeed, numerous olive oil presses dating from the Minoan era have been found all over the island, showing clearly the long history of olive oil production in Crete. Some of these olive oil presses are the oldest of their kind in Europe.

Olive oil had a central role in the Minoan diet, as is the case with the modern Cretan diet. Especially in a time where there were hardly any means to preserve food – like today’s refrigerators – olive oil had the paramount advantage to be easily preserved for years, even in high temperatures.

This is shown clearly in the very large clay vases – or “pithoi”, as the ancient Minoans called them – that were found in the Minoan palace of Knossos, the landmark of the Minoan architecture. Historian are convinced that these pretty large storage containers were used to safely preserve olive oil. In fact, according to the archaeological findings, the total storage space in the palace for olive oil amounted to hundreds of thousands of kilograms.

Another easy to understand reason why Cretan olive oil was historically an extremely valuable food throughout history, is its nutritional value. Olive oil packs a great deal of high nutritional value and “good” calories in a very small space, it is one of the most “condensed” foods on earth.

Cretan olive oil was not only used historically as part of the Minoan diet, though: There is evidence that olive oil was used since the ancient times for cleansing, for lighting, as a medicine, and for myriads of other purposes.

Cretan olive oil in history: after the minoan years

After olive oil was established in the Minoan years as the foundation of the Minoan diet, it never really lost its central role in the core of the Cretan diet through the ages.

In more recent history, olive oil was very popular during the years of the Venetians in Crete. Especially during the turbulent times of the Ottoman’s attacks on the island, and the numerous sieges that took place by the Ottomans in many Cretan towns and fortresses, olive oil was the foundation of the food supplies for those hard times of siege: it could be easily stored for long in small spaces and it could feed a lot of people.

In today’s Crete there may not be any sieges any more, but the olive oil is still the basis of the Cretan diet. It is impressive if we realize that olive oil is in the core of the Cretan diet since the Minoan years, for more than 4.000 years!

The history of Crete, due to the island’s location between three continents, and its unique climate and advantages, was as rich as a small place like Crete could pack. And a central part of this history has to do with the Cretan olive oil, which is a foundation of the local diet since the Minoan years.