I have a thing for extra virgin olive oil. Some might call it an obsession, but I prefer to think of it as a love affair. I’ve chased that golden-green elixir around the world, savoring its subtle inflections: grassy, fruity, nutty. My husband has waited patiently in elegant tasting rooms as I sipped varietals and cultivars and single-estate standouts, robust early harvests and pale, buttery award-winners.
At home, extra virgin olive oil is my favorite afternoon snack. I pour it onto a cracker and admire it there in a tiny, shimmering pool surrounded by a dollop of hummus to keep it from falling off. After all, it is the olive oil I’m after. Its leafy hue reminds me of hot summer afternoons. Its peppery burn lashes mischievously at the back of my tongue. Its light viscosity slides luxuriously down my throat. It moistens my lips and glistens on my chin. I smooth the excess onto my hands and elbows. I’m often tempted to smother every inch of my body with the unctuous condiment. I did that once and felt like an awesome Greek goddess … until the fruit flies started circling. It also made my sheets smell somewhat rancid — a decidedly ungoddess-like effect.
It’s not surprising then, with this obsession, that from the minute I started planning my Greek vacation I knew the exotic liquid would have to play a part in the experience. Olive oil is a crucial part of the Mediterranean diet, which is said to support a long and healthy life. It may be the fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish and moderate amounts of red wine that actually produce the desired effect, but I prefer to think it’s all about the olive oil. Anti-inflammatory, high in phytonutrients and antioxidants, and helpful in preventing maladies as varied as Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, it could probably replace one’s primary care physician. It has even been credited with enlarging breasts when applied properly.
Science writer Markham Heid reported on a paper by cardiologist James O’Keefe, MD, and colleagues, published in the September 2020 Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Plant-based foods — vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains — form the foundation of the ideal heart-healthy diet. Fatty fish and other types of seafood, along with “unrestricted” helpings of extra-virgin olive oil [emphasis mine], round out the diet’s major components.
So go ahead — enjoy all the olive oil you want, guilt free! (But remember, I am not a doctor.)
In fact, olive oil has played an important part in the human experience for millennia. Kırkpınar, or olive oil wrestling, is the world’s oldest documented sporting event, dating back at least to 2600 BCE, and is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
But, in my opinion, olive oil has played its most significant role in human experience as an ingredient in soap. Without soap, we’d still be licking our own skin to get rid of the dust and dirt of everyday life, which might be good for lingual dexterity, but would have set us far, far behind in terms of making time for innovations and inventions, not to mention government, art and critical thinking. One could even make the argument that soap is the foundation upon which civilization has been built.
According to one legend, soap originated on the island of Lesbos, where animal sacrifice was practiced. The remains of those sacrifices — fat and ashes — flowed from stone altars into the river when rains were heavy. Women washing their clothes in the river noticed how good the laundry looked after their oblations, made the connection between animal fat and cleanliness, and soap was invented.
The poet Sappho, one of the first to chronicle the efficacy of soap, is supposedly the namesake of soap making or saponification. It being Greece, folks quickly figured out that olive oil was a more convenient ingredient than sacrificial animal fat, and so began the long history of olive oil soap making. And one of the best places to make olive oil soap, I discovered, is on a Greek island.
After a week in Athens — seven days spent slathering my innards in delicious olive oil — I flew to Crete. From the capital city of Heraklion I hopped a local bus to Knossos, the famed site of spectacular ancient ruins, where I encountered evidence of olive oil’s importance in ancient times. There, a prominent grouping of gigantic terracotta amphorae — once containing hundreds of gallons olive oil — huddle together like friends frozen in timeless conversation.
Nearby, I came across a fresco of elegant Mycenaean maidens dancing in front of olive trees. As I admired the image, my wizened guide, Charidinos, extolled the virtues of olive oil with irrefutable logic: “Elia means olive tree, or tree of wisdom, in Greek,” he explained. “So you see, two or three spoons of olive oil every day will make the mind sharp and the body strong!”
Back in Heraklion I discovered yet another way to enjoy the oil of my dreams. I decided to take a class in olive oil soap making. It would be the perfect finale to my Greek explorations. I was pretty sure I remembered that soap making requires lye, or some other highly caustic chemical, but the instructor, Gregory, was a chemist when he wasn’t teaching tourists to make soap, so I figured he’d be well-versed in safety.
Besides, I could give the soap as a gift to my son’s girlfriend, Debbie, who loves fragrant lotions and skin care products. I hadn’t found a gift for her yet, and this would be truly Grecian. It would also be an expression of my affection, since it would demonstrate that I’d taken time — several hours, in fact — from my peregrinations to do something thoughtful for her. I signed up.
I expected the soap-making experience to take place either in a chemistry lab or in a small cottage with an ancient stone altar surrounded by trees and friendly woodland animals. But the taxi delivered me to an apartment in the suburbs. Two young couples joined me for the class; one couple was from Scotland, the other from Germany. Apparently there’s a worldwide interest among young people in soap production … or in extra virgin olive oil … or maybe in making thoughtful little gifts to bring home from Greek vacations.
Besides being a chemist, Gregory — in his thirties, friendly, and with a headful of beautiful black hair — played in a band. Ikea-like furniture and several guitars crowded his living room. He had set up a small worktable in the kitchen, which had acid green walls. They were the color olives would be if they were electrified, and created a vague feeling of danger.
The supplies Gregory had laid out added to the ambiance of peril: each participant was provided with a pair of protective goggles, rubber gloves, a 4-inch square of aluminum foil to measure ingredients onto, a beaker, and a long glass stirring rod. We all shared a scale and digital thermometer.
It looked quite scientific. In fact, it reminded me of chemistry class — not a good memory. Despite being excellent at following directions, I could never get my experiments to come out the proper way. That is to say, even though they were “experiments,” there were still expectations. Often my results were not even close to the normal range — so much so that I began to wonder whether a fellow classmate was sneaking into the lab and sabotaging my careful work, perhaps trying to influence the grading curve to his or her advantage. That’s the way I prefer to explain my consistently unsatisfactory results. And that’s why I never really liked chemistry. I wanted to like it. I loved the idea of mixing exotic ingredients, like an alchemist turning lead into gold, or a witch brewing up love potions — but I was clearly not cut out for it.
So when Gregory gave us a quick chemistry lesson, it went completely over my head. It began with something about micellar aggregates of surfactant molecules dispersed in colloid liquids and the packing behavior of single-tail lipids in a bilayer, sequestering the hydrophobic regions … and it ended with the fact that soap made from pure olive oil is known to be especially mild.
Gregory also gave us a safety lesson. “It’s important to measure all the quantities carefully,” he explained, “and to follow my directions exactly. If the ingredients are combined in the wrong order or in incorrect amounts or even at the wrong temperatures, you could end up with both heat burns and chemical burns. Or with an explosion that would decimate my kitchen!”
Gregory held up a small square of aluminum foil from a previous soap-making class. It was burned — perhaps dissolved would be a better term, for only half of it remained — where a caustic chemical sitting on the foil square had come into contact with water. We all gasped appropriately.
I donned the safety goggles and volunteered to go first. With Gregory supervising, I combined the initial ingredients and stirred them carefully with the glass rod. The solution clouded and bubbled, then cleared as a chemical reaction heated the beaker until it was so hot it nearly melted my latex gloves. While the class waited for it to cool off, Gregory gave us a concise history lesson: The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like substances dates back to around 2800 BCE in ancient Babylon. Liquid soap was not invented, however, until late in the nineteenth century. In 1898, a man named B.J. Johnson developed a mixture derived from palm and olive oils, and introduced Palmolive brand soap.
While Gregory talked, my solution was cooling off and ready for the next step. “Do you want to add color or scent?” he asked, pulling out small bottles of red and blue coloring. I considered the options. This was an important decision. I wanted it to be just right, but wasn’t sure what Debbie would like best. Hmmm, I thought, something pretty and feminine, for sure.
Finally, I chose red, figuring I’d add just one drop to turn the mixture a delicate, rosy hue. I’d create a pretty pink bar that was exceptionally soothing and moisturizing. Several scents were available, too: yummy chocolate or healing lavender. I decided on the chocolate. I’d had a chocolate massage once in Spain, and it was an absolutely luscious experience. Excited about my decision, I could already envision Debbie lathering up with wonderful pink, chocolate-scented bubbles.
I added the color carefully, following Gregory’s instructions. But I didn’t get pink. It turns out that adding just one teeny, tiny drop of red to an extra-green, extra-virgin olive oil solution immediately turns it an unappealing shade of brown. And adding the chocolate scent made it clump together — suddenly the whole thing went “off” like a curdled brown hollandaise. I attempted to transfer my “soap” into the mold, but the lumpy mess continued to congeal and wouldn’t pour. I had to scoop it out with my awkwardly gloved hands and dump it into the rectangular mold, poking it like lumpy mashed potatoes into the corners.
That old chemistry-class curse had followed me all the way to Crete! I persevered, doing my best to flatten the top, to make it look like a beautiful little gem that Debbie would be proud to put on her bathroom sink. But in the end, there was no escaping the fact that it was brown and lumpy, and looked very much like a … well, like a thing that belongs in another place in the bathroom, a thing that should be flushed … and never seen again.
What will they think when I try to bring it home through Customs? I worried. I would definitely have some explaining to do. Perhaps Gregory could provide me a certificate of authenticity. And what would Debbie think? I couldn’t possibly give her a gift that looked like you know what.
After seeing my unfortunate creation, the German and Scottish couples decided to keep their soaps pure and free of any added color or scent. Of course, their bars turned out beautifully: silky smooth in texture, pale Palmolive-green colored, and with a naturally fresh, clean scent.
I left feeling discouraged — clearly an incompetent chemist, a total failure at what should have been a simple process. I had nothing for Debbie. And my homeward flight was first thing in the morning.
As I walked back to my hotel I kept an eye out for souvenirs in Heraklion’s countless gift shops, which sold tie-dyed clothing, olive-themed ceramics, and soaps — lots of olive oil soaps in bright, clear colors: lavender, peach, strawberry red, sea-mist green. The scents were lovely, too: vanilla, lemon, jasmine. I chose a pretty yellow, honey-scented bar for Debbie. I hope she likes it.
I gave the brown one to my husband.