How olive oil became the lifeblood of Greece and trickled into American culture
While Thomas Jefferson's mission to bring "liquid gold" to colonial America failed, 250 years later, American foodies are following his lead.
ATHENS, Greece — It’s one of those mornings in Greece that has tourists asking, “Do I bring the umbrella?” The rain that spit on them as they sipped on their morning espresso has now subsided — ominous, almost angry clouds giving way to a glorious blue sky.
It’s as if Zeus, the Greek god of thunder and lightning himself, decided to give the tourists a break just as they climbed the steps of his mythical home at the Acropolis of Athens.
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, close to 3 million people walked through the famous ancient archaeological site located on a rocky outcrop above the city. In fact, the word “acropolis” comes from the Greek words for “highest point” and “city.” The site was closed briefly in the spring of 2020 and has since reopened to tourists who stroll through what is left of the ancient buildings and temples so often mentioned for their historical significance and contributions to modern architecture.
Several of the Greek gods and goddesses are honored here on these limestone hills. The goddess Athena gets top billing. After all, the city of Athens is named for her, and the most famous structure within the Acropolis, the Parthenon, is dedicated to her.
Over the centuries, the Parthenon — and in fact, all the monuments that make up the Acropolis — endured war, weather, natural disasters and vandalism to be remembered for many things: as a home to kings, a citadel, a mythical home of the gods, a religious center, a tourist attraction and an enduring symbol of democracy and Western civilization.
But if the Acropolis is the heart of this nation, what is its lifeblood?
Without a doubt, it's olive oil, known to some here as “liquid gold” for all that it has given to Greek culture and the Greeks themselves. Now, one American man is hoping to bring the benefits to his country.
Peter Schultz is an American with the soul of a Greek. An archaeologist, entrepreneur and former professor, he studied and lived in Greece for seven years. He now leads others in expeditions through the countryside and the olive groves that changed his life.
It began in 1997 for Schultz, when he traveled to Mistras in the Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of Greece. For Schultz, this is the place where he struck gold when he met up and started partnering with an olive oil farmer named Eugune Ladopoulos who produces the olive oil in his grove, while Peter helps bring it back home to friends in the United States.
Schultz started calling it “liquid gold,” not just for the smooth, rich taste of the oil, but for the ways in which the oil made him feel. He started following the Mediterranean diet, which we’ll get to in a future story in Forum Communications' five-part "Liquid Gold" series, but before we can get to that, it's important to point out what an integral part olive oil has played in this nation’s history.
“It is a truly ancient, primordial history. As a genotype, we are talking about a plant that has lived on earth for millions of years. In terms of human interaction with the olive tree, it goes back in terms of the archaeological record at least 10,000 years before the present moment,” Schultz said.
He said the oil went beyond use to eat and even drink — it became the fundamental staple of religious, political and cultural life for the ancient Greeks.
“It was a kind of currency. It was awarded in games as prizes. It was a base for all of their perfumes. It was used by athletes in the gymnasium and during the Olympics. It was offered to the gods. It was the source of profound pride throughout the Mediterranean,” he said.
The olive tree and olive branch became national symbols for Greece, emphasizing the Greeks’ love of peace and hospitality. Many of the biggest trees and most abundant groves exist in the region of Mistras and Sparta. Schultz said some of the oldest olive trees can be as much as 30 feet across — sprawling, strange, gargantuan trees.
“They look like a kind of strange, hunched grandfather,” Schultz said. “He's been around in that field for 6,000 years, and he's still giving us the fruit every winter. You know, it's just incredible.”
The influence of olive oil on Western civilization crossed oceans, even to colonial America. Founding father and third president Thomas Jefferson, often called the first foodie president, was a huge fan of olive oil after being introduced to it while living in France in the 1780s.
He even called olive trees “the most interesting plant in existence,” and he worked hard to bring olive oil farming to his young country.
He convinced South Carolina to let him purchase young olive trees, then spent years promoting their cultivation. He believed that among "the blessings which this tree sheds on the poor" was its ability to make a limited diet more wholesome and vegetables drizzled with olive oil more appealing. Sounds like something we hear today.
Unfortunately, by 1804, Jefferson had to admit failure after South Carolina’s farmers were less than enthusiastic about the project. Not only were they impatient that olive trees took years to produce their first crop, but they fell victim to bouts of bad weather, random frost and humidity.
Disappointed by the Carolina olive oil project but still wanting the oil for himself, Jefferson resorted to importing 4 to 5 gallons a year from France.
Fortunately, Jefferson’s dream of American olive oil didn’t perish. Olive trees are currently grown in a handful of American states, including California, Oregon and Texas.
In fact, just days after getting back to the United States after going with Schultz on this olive oil pilgrimage, Ron and Amanda Phillips of Austin, Texas, decided to start a mini olive grove in their backyard.
"I'd heard that olive trees grew really well in the Texas hill country, which is where our home is. I've also always said if you're going to plant a tree, you might as well plant a tree that feeds you," Ron Phillips said. "We fell in love with Greece, and we ate olives and olive oil from trees that somebody planted hundreds (and thousands) of years ago. The thought of being stewards of that legacy made it seem like a natural thing to plant a few trees in our yard. They'll always remind of us that trip, the culture and the people. They'll give us a way to reconnect for years to come as we brine our own olives and press a little bit of oil for ourselves."
Phillips said the trees are still very young but appear to be doing well.
In tomorrow's installment of "Liquid Gold," we take you to the heart of Eugene Ladopoulos’ olive grove to see where the magic begins.
For more information about Forum Communications' series and read all published installments, visit www.inforum.com/liquidgold . Tune into WDAY-TV at noon Saturday, April 9, to watch our full-length documentary, which will also be available on the Liquid Gold page beginning April 11.