Digging into the World of Olive Oil in Delphi

Pro tip: when you get invited to the 2nd Yale International Symposium on Olive Oil and Health in Delphi, Greece, say yes! In December, I joined a motley and brilliant crew of academics, scientists, nutritionists, industry people, entrepreneurs, and advocates to talk all things olive. The three days of research presentations, panel conversations, and tastings—so much delicious olive oil!—were so rich with information that by the time I left to drive back to Athens, my head was spinning. 

We talked about everything from the cultural history of the olive tree in landscape architecture to the role of olives in fighting climate change to advances in natural black table olive processing. We heard from farmers, chefs, chemists, and agronomists. (We also danced the night away to live music at one of the world’s oldest cafes, or kafenio, fueling ourselves with shots of ouzo and cubes of roasted lamb. The mayor of Delphi danced right along with us.) 

The Symposium’s organizers Tassos C. Kyriakides and Vasilis Vasiliou of the Yale School of Public Health are working to create the Yale Olive Sciences and Health Institute, which will facilitate the rigorous study, robust research and creative interdisciplinary activities of all things related to olives, olive oil, and the olive tree. 

I spoke about my experience writing about olive oil both as a journalist and as a marketer and copywriter for olive oil brands and grocery stores. In my job, I get to directly communicate with consumers and shape their experience of and knowledge about olive oil, and (hopefully) tell stories that inform and inspire. I talked about the challenges of cutting through the deluge of marketing speak, clarifying mistruths and half-truths, and making sure my own information is accurate and clear. I’m not used to speaking to a room full of so many scientists and academics—I was nervous, but I definitely brought a different perspective.

I came home with a suitcase full of olive oil and a notebook full of olive-related scribbles and stories I that can’t wait to dig into…plus some new friends. Here are some nuggets I took away from the symposium:

The Olive Tree Is Not Just the Domain of the Mediterranean

It was no accident that we gathered in Delphi, looking out onto the pretty expanse of the more than a million trees that comprise the Amfissa olive grove, one of the oldest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The harvest of olive trees began here some time during the Neolithic period, and the ancient grove leads the way to the famed Delphi Oracle. 

While the Mediterranean region can claim ownership of the olive tree’s deep history, it doesn’t have a monopoly on its future. If you have a favorite bottle of olive oil from California or Chile or Australia in your kitchen, you already know this. 

One of my favorite presentations was from Takeyasu Kubota, General Director of Shozu Olive Research Institute/Kagawa Prefectural in the northeast of Japan’s Shikoku Island. In Kagawa, the quantity and quality of olive oil production has climbed steadily since the 1990’s, sparked in large part by consumer’s interest in olive oil’s health benefits. Perhaps because the olive tree is relatively new on the island, olive-related innovation comes at high speed in Kagawa. The pomace, which often gets discarded as waste, is dried and used as feed for olive-fed beef and pork. Olive leaves are brewed to make tea, which has a sweet tang and a hint of bitterness. Olives, oil, leaves and other by-products are turned into processed foods and cosmetics. We got to try fizzy, chartreuse olive soda and slurp savory forest-green olive noodles. Back at home, I bought myself an olive oil sheet mask from my favorite Korean beauty store. I don’t know if it’s just wishful thinking, but I think my skin is super soft. 

Olive Oil Is (Really) Good for You

It’s not big news that olive oil is full of health benefits. It’s the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, delivering serious monosaturated fats and antioxidants. Rosa Lamuela, who leads the Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety at the University of Barcelona, presented new research findings in this vein. “Apart from being rich in monounsaturated fatty acids,” she explained, olive oil is “rich in bioactive compounds and have a unique phenolic profile with interesting biological properties. Extra virgin olive oil and olives contain tyrosols, flavones, phenolic acids and lignans, being oleuropein and their derivatives (3,4-DHPEA- EDA, 3,4-DHPEA-EA, oleuropein-aglycone…) the most prevalent polyphenols.” In other words, it packs a serious nutritional punch. 

Antonia Trichopoulou from the Hellenic Health Foundation pointed out that time-honored Greek cooking wouldn’t feature such large amounts of veggies and legumes without olive oil, which is traditionally used in the preparation of these dishes. In Greece, “olive oil is used for almost all cooking,” said Antonia. “And although there has been an effort in the past to promote other types of vegetable oils, Greeks remain largely faithful to their culinary roots and retain respect for the invaluable gift of the goddess Athena.” 

Greece is greens heaven, with something like 300 different varieties of wild edible greens. Horta, or steamed greens with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and plenty of olive oil, is a delicious way to get your veggies andyour olive oil in. The two are very good friends. 

Olive Trees Can Help Fight Climate Change 

Francisco Vañó, CEO of esteemed Spanish olive oil producer Castillo de Canena, spoke about the importance of taking care of the environment in his work. Healthy and sustainable groves are at the heart Castillo de Canena. “Our customers are massively aware that we must all fight against climate change, the extinction of animal and plant species,” Francisco said. “Our obligation is to regenerate territory and make our planet increasingly alive and biodiverse. The concept that our olive groves are real forests that create living ecosystems, add a very important differential value to our EVOOs.” 

Belén Fernández of Spain’s IRTA Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology spoke about transforming potentially harmful olive oil waste products into sustainable resources that help, in turn, play a part in olive oil production. Another approach is creating systems with broader biodiversity, like the integration of livestock and olive agriculture. 

The Future Is Delicious and Bright

Olive oil is one of humanity’s oldest products. “Tradition can bring history, emotional connection and cultural significance, but it can also bring chains in the form of limitations and narrow thinking,” said Alexandra Devarenne of the Extra Virgin Alliance. At the Symposium, many seemed to embrace the importance of breaking free from those chains. 

Its deep roots don’t prevent the olive tree from being a site of creativity and innovation. Aikaterini Tzamourani, of the Agricultural University of Athens, presented advances in natural black table olive processing which would make olives much lower in sodium. Rosa Vañó, who co-owns Castillo de Canena with her brother Francisco, shared tastes of her company’s olive oils infused with spicy harissa, and another made with deep green sea phytoplankton. Some olive oil pros turn their noses down at infused oils, but Rosa’s high-quality products give home cooks a new way to fall in love with the flavor, experience, health benefits, and genuine joy of olive oil. That joy was hard to miss in Dephi. 

Hannah Howard is a writer and food expert who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on a hot line, flipping giant wheels of cheese, and managing restaurants. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen. Hannah is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. She writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in Brooklyn.