Olive Odyssey

Syrian olive groves near Julie’s family farm

Syrian olive groves near Julie’s family farm

Olive Odyssey is a quest to expose the secrets of the world’s most influential fruit. How could greedy olive oil companies kill more than 1000 people? Why do Sardinians, who consume vast quantities of olive oil, have more centenarians than anywhere else? Who picked the first olive and forever changed the world?

The humble olive, all too often taken for granted on a slice of leftover pizza, is arguably the world’s most influential fruit. First cultivated some 8,000 years ago in the Middle East, the olive tree quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean and became an important commodity for empires that would help shape the modern world. Olive oil was not only a vital food to sustain the masses, but lubricated heavy machinery, sealed wooden ships, and fuelled lamps. The olive branch became a universal symbol of peace and reconciliation, adorned the heads of Olympians and accompanied kings in their grave. For millennia much of the world agreed with Homer in the Odyssey; olive oil was “liquid gold”.

In 2011 our team travelled by sailboat and overland from Spain to the Middle East, retracing the trading routes of early seafaring merchants to explore the lands sculpted by the olive tree and uncover how the olive first came to those shores. Working in partnership with National Geographic, Canadian arts & research programs and an Italian University we  sampled ancient olive trees throughout the Mediterranean and conducted DNA analysis to help understand the history of the olive tree. We examined the cultural, culinary and historical importance of the olive tree to the lands in grows in, tasting delicious foods, examining ancient artifacts and speaking with renowned experts.  Julie documented the journey in the book Olive Odyssey – Searching for the Secrets of the Fruit that Seduced the World, which was published in Canada and the USA by Greystone in 2014.

inspired by our family’s olive farm

Shortly after getting married, we journeyed 7,000 km by rowboat and bicycle, connecting our ancestral homelands of Scotland and Syria. The seven-month expedition ended at Julie’s families’ olive farm in the Middle East, and it was here that we were inspired with the idea for our next journey.

Ruins of the 5th-century Byzantine basilica at Kharab Shams, one of the Dead Cities in North-western Syria

Ruins of the 5th-century Byzantine basilica at Kharab Shams, one of the Dead Cities in North-western Syria

Surrounded by thousands of silvery-leaved olive trees, it was hard not to think about the role this miracle fruit has played in the development of Mediterranean cultures. Five thousand year old grindstones and earthenware jugs, once filled with olive oil, had been uncovered nearby. A short drive away lay the ancient city of Elba where 4,300-year-old clay tablets containing the first written reference to the olive oil trade were unearthed. The gnarled trees of the family farm were a part of that history that motivated us to learn more.


the fruit that changed the world

The olive is one of the earliest domesticated trees and people have been using its products for over eight thousand years. Over time its popularity has increased, and today’s olive crops blanket more land than any other fruit. It is a universal symbol of peace and reconciliation and the records of civilization are rife with stories of its power and influence. Homer calls olive oil liquid gold in the Odyssey. In the bible a branch of the olive tree is brought to Noah to signify the end of the flood. The Quran praises it as a precious fruit.

The olive tree flourishes where most other crops fail, in arid rocky soil common throughout the Mediterranean. Some of the most important empires in shaping the modern world – the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Spanish – all ruled from lands bathed in the dappled shade of the olive tree. Due to its many important uses, olive oil was traded heavily and became a form of currency in some regions. The olive allowed agricultural towns to flourish in landscapes where little else could be grown. It also enabled artisans, tradesmen and writers to labour long into the evenings using olive-oil fuelled lanterns, thereby increasing productivity.

While the olive played a significant role historically, its importance has not diminished in modern times. In fact, demand is now higher than ever as people learn more about its health, cosmetic and culinary benefits. High demand has created the world’s most corrupt food industry. False labelling, inaccurate classification, and shoddy production are some of the less serious offences. Others, fuelled by greed and the opportunity for quick riches, have gone so far as to create counterfeit oils using a concoction of chemicals and industrial lubricants. While the result can taste remarkably like olive oil, the health consequences can be deadly as demonstrated in Spain, where in 1982 almost 1,000 people died and 100,000 fell ill from ingesting a poisonous cocktail sold as olive oil.

The story of the olive is irresistible. It is rife with crime, steeped in history, and touted as one of the miracle health products of our era.


the olive’s origins and our journey

Ancient olive tree in Sicily

Ancient olive tree in Sicily

Beginning in Spain, we sailed eastwards to France and then to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.  From there we travelled overland to mainland Italy and Greece, Crete, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. Our maritime voyage retraced ancient Phoenician trading routes, who many believe are responsible for distributing the olive tree throughout the Mediterranean. We stopped in ports that were under their control 3,500 years ago and explored ancient Phoenician colonies in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Palestine and Israel. We also visited inland olive growing regions to explore archaeological sites that document the first use of olive oil and examined ancient olive groves, such as those in Israel that are thought to be 3,000 years old.

When we began this journey is was not clear exactly where the olive tree was first domesticated or how it came to cover so much land throughout the Mediterranean, where 90% of olive trees now grow. However, advancements in scientific analysis such as DNA testing and carbon dating as well as the discovery and documentation of archaeological sites are continually providing clues to the answer.

One theory was that the Phoenicians, who lived in what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel, traded not only olive oil throughout the Mediterranean but brought olive trees and the knowledge of how to produce olive oil to the colonies they created and populations they traded with. The highly sophisticated Phoenicians navigated the waters of the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago and dominated these seas for over a millennium. Archaeological remnants indicate they traded in olive oil and their colonies were often situated in regions where olive trees now flourish. Carbon dating indicates that the oldest olive trees still living are in the Middle East, while there are no living trees in the Western Mediterranean countries that predate the Phoenician expansion. Furthermore, DNA analysis demonstrates that olive trees in some Mediterranean countries were imported from elsewhere. Thanks to our research and the support of our partners we were able to gather evidence to bolster this theory.

To find out more about the expedition visit the archived expedition website.

Order the book Olive Odyssey: Searching for the Secrets of the Fruit That Seduced the World.