Chefs talking with people in a restaurant in Delphi

In Delphi, the ancient Greeks’ center of the world, more than 100 experts, professionals, and enthusiasts from seven countries gathered at the 2nd International Yale Symposium on Olive Oil and Health to discuss a liquid gold and a solid treasure that have been central to Greek civilization since the time of the Delphic oracle: olive oil and olives. 

Approaching Delphi from the east, travelers look up to mountaintops and gaze down on valleys full of olive trees. These are part of the largest continuous olive grove in Greece, with a million trees stretching from the plains below Mount Parnassus to the edge of the Corinthian Gulf.

Down the road from the famous archaeological site and museum of Delphi, where ancient columns and walls overlook the striking scenery, conference goers find the European Cultural Center on a forested hillside.

During the first four days of December, the Center hosted researchers, exporters, farmers, tasters, chefs, and aficionados for the Yale Symposium on Olive Oil and Health. The Symposium attracted key players from several of the major olive oil producing and consuming countries: the USA, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Japan, Cyprus, and Greece. With lectures, discussions, presentations, tastings, posters, and excursions, this diverse group considered the latest developments in the world of olive oil and table olives.

International Olive Council (IOC) Deputy Executive Director Jaime Lillo came from Spain to deliver the keynote address, which introduced one of the Symposium’s central concerns: sustainability in the face of climate change. Lillo discussed the IOC’s “campaign to raise awareness of the positive impact of olive growing,” since it is “not only good for our health, but also contributes to the health of the planet” by helping to combat climate change, “one of our major threats and our major challenge.” For thousands of years, olive trees have made up “a Mediterranean forest,” and they continue to clean the atmosphere by removing carbon from it: 10.65 kg of carbon dioxide for every liter of virgin olive oil.

Focusing on another of the Symposium’s principal concerns, human health, physicians and nutritionists discussed benefits of the Mediterranean diet and the olive oil and olives central to it, including a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Scientists shared some of the evidence that olive oil can help fight cancer and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other conditions arising from platelet aggregation, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Researchers reviewed the benefits of eating table olives and cooking and dressing with olive oil, then some of Greece’s most highly acclaimed chefs illustrated the way extra virgin olive oil can play an exquisite part in gourmet culinary delights ranging from appetizers to vegetarian dishes and meats.

World-famous chef Yannis Baxevanis, an ambassador of Greek cuisine known as the “Greek magician of aromatic herbs” in Australia, values olive oil as “a treasure on its own.” Baxevanis explained that French chefs he met 30 years ago used to disapprove of the large quantity of olive oil in Greek cuisine. Now, however, prominent “French chefs come to Greece to select and buy Greek olive oil. Times change.” Celebrity chef Christoforos Peskias added that olive oil is “a Mediterranean product in production thousands of years. This country has a beautiful olive oil. Most Greek olive oil is extra virgin olive oil, which is wonderful. This is a product for the people. The Greek people grew up with it. It’s in their culture, their life, in their everyday cooking." And at harvest time "life evolves around it.”

Indeed, Symposium participants noticed pickup trucks carrying crates of harvested olives to a mill during an excursion down into the sea of olive trees below Delphi. Standing next to an olive grove, Greek agronomist Efstathios Stavrianos discussed the native Amfissa olives in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the most ancient systematic olive tree cultivation took place in this area, according to Stavrianos; there were even sacred wars to protect the olive trees of the oracle of Delphi. Now, visitors can admire the plump golden green and purple olives hanging from full, healthy branches.

The Symposium’s interdisciplinary nature was noteworthy, as agronomists presented illustrations of molecules and olive mill machinery, and tour leaders, marketers, tasters, and food writers suggested ways of communicating to consumers about the versatile flavors, uses, and benefits of olive oil and olives. In a guided tasting, international olive oil judge Alexandra Devarenne highlighted the differing uses and levels of bitterness, pungency, and fruitiness in several high phenolic oils. Innovations in the production of flavored olive oils with everything from plankton to chili also offered unexpected tastes popular in various parts of the world.

The diversity of culinary traditions, olive varieties, and olive oil processing and marketing possibilities was often linked to the importance of sustainable farming and production. Several speakers described an impressive range of environmentally friendly practices. For example, Francisco Vañó of Castillo de Canena in Spain explained how his team is “creating a living forest, a sink of carbon dioxide gases.” Involved with many EU projects, they have created a circular economy that uses precision agriculture and ecosystem regeneration to encourage biodiversity and combat climate change. Their efforts include composting, reforestation projects, the use of renewable energy, and the regeneration of habitats for various species.

Organized by Professor Vasilis Vasiliou and Dr. Tassos Kyriakides of the Yale School of Public Health, this wide-ranging international Symposium was part of their effort to establish the Yale Olive Sciences and Health Institute in the USA. The institute is intended “to facilitate and coordinate rigorous study, robust research, and creative interdisciplinary education and activities related to the olive tree and its products,” according to the Symposium program.

Pilgrims no longer seek an oracle from the priestess of Apollo, the god of light, truth, healing, and harmony. However, the olive trees of Delphi remain a key feature of the landscape, and their fruit and juice remain central to Greek life. The enthusiastic intellectual engagement of Symposium participants suggests that their meeting near the ancient temple of Apollo will inspire continuing support for the sustainable, beneficial use of the fruit of an ancient and abiding tree that symbolizes peace and health.


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