The Mediterranean region, known for its rich history, diverse cultures and unique cuisine. Among the many culinary treasures that have emerged from this area, olives have played a significant role in the diets and lifestyles of Mediterranean peoples for thousands of years.


The origin of Olive Trees

The exact origin of the olive tree (Olea europaea) remains a subject of debate among historians and archaeologists. Fossilized leaves of olive trees have been found by scientists on the walls of the caldera of Santorini, in Fira. The finds, as young as 60,000 years old, were found between Thira and Aspronisi and are rare not only for Greece but also for the wider Mediterranean basin. Thus, it seems that they were cultivated many years earlier in Greece. These ancient olive trees were small and produced a bitter fruit, which was not suitable for direct consumption.


The transformation into Edible Table Olives

As early human societies began to settle in the Mediterranean region around 9,000 years ago, they started to domesticate wild olive trees and cultivate them for their numerous benefits. The process of domestication involved selective breeding, which led to the development of larger olive trees that produced a more palatable fruit.

To make olives more palatable, ancient Mediterranean peoples discovered that they could undergo a series of treatments to reduce their bitterness. These methods included fermentation, sun-drying, and chemical treatments like soaking in water or brine.

Fermentation was one of the earliest and most common methods, where olives were left to ferment in large vats filled with water. Over time, the natural bacteria would break down the oleuropein, making the olives edible. This process also led to the development of pickled olives, as the olives were preserved in their own brine or a mixture of brine and herbs.

Sun-drying was another technique used to make olives edible. By exposing them to the sun, the moisture content would decrease, and the olives would become less bitter. This method resulted in the creation of dry-cured olives, which are often enjoyed as a snack or used as an ingredient in various dishes.


Integration into Mediterranean Cuisine

As table olives became more popular, they began to play a significant role in the culinary traditions of Mediterranean cultures. Greeks, Romans, and Arabs all incorporated olives into their dishes, using them as a condiment, garnish, or ingredient in various recipes.

In Greece, table olives are a staple in meze, a selection of small dishes served as appetizers or snacks. They are also commonly paired with feta cheese, creating a flavor combination that has become synonymous with Greek cuisine. In Spain, olives are a key component of tapas, the country’s famous small plates, often served with almonds or marinated in a mixture of herbs and spices.

Moreover, table olives have also found their way into the religious and cultural celebrations of Mediterranean societies.


The journey of table olives from their ancient origins to their prominent place in Mediterranean cuisine is a testament to human ingenuity and the adaptability of food traditions. By transforming a once-bitter fruit into a beloved delicacy, Mediterranean peoples have enriched their culinary heritage and left a lasting impact on global gastronomy. Today, table olives continue to be cherished for their unique taste and health benefits, serving as a reminder of the fascinating history that lies behind this.