Was there a time British people couldn't buy olive oil?

Olive oil and olives Image copyright Thinkstock

The UK could be facing higher olive oil prices after a summer of droughts in Spain. But a popular notion is that there was once a time when olive oil was only available to buy at a pharmacy. How true is it, asks Tom Heyden.

Cookery writer Elizabeth David is credited with introducing a culinary revolution in the UK, publishing A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. She famously told readers that olive oil - vital for many recipes - could be found in chemists where it was sold as a treatment for ear ailments, among other things.

Today, multiple varieties of olive oil are available in every supermarket, but was it really such an exotic ingredient 60 years ago? Judy Ridgway, now an olive oil expert, wasn't aware of it during her middle-class Manchester upbringing. "We didn't come across olive oil at all except from the chemist," she says. And they never cooked with it. "My mother used to rub it into her hair before she had it permed."

Olive oil explained 19th Century-style

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Image caption Mrs Beeton (1836-1865) was famous for her cookery and house-keeping books

"The oil extracted from olives, called olive oil, or salad oil, is, with the continentals, in continual request, more dishes being prepared with than without it, we should imagine. With us, it is principally used in mixing a salad, and when thus employed, it tends to prevent fermentation, and is an antidote against flatulency."

- from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861

But an updated and enlarged 1907 version of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management treats olive oil as a fairly standard ingredient. It is listed in onion pudding and Cambridge sauce. Almond fritters require a "hot frying-fat, clarified butter and olive oil". This suggests familiarity with its usage. "Victorian England was one of those places where you could buy anything if you had the money to do it," food historian Dr Annie Gray says, and it would have been sold at the grocers, often for salads. That's not to dispel the myth completely. "[Usage] seemed to peter out - like an awful lot of things - in the interwar years," Gray says.

It didn't disappear entirely. A 1938 article in the Times about chanterelle mushrooms recommends cooking them with olive oil. And over a period of some decades a company called Sasso sold it in London.

The myth is that David is solely responsible for olive oil's resurgence in the UK, says Gray, but people certainly struggled to get hold of it. "If you didn't live in London or the South East then it was more difficult to find it," says Ridgway. "You did have to seek it out." Unavailability may explain its regular parody as a middle-class staple. Even by the late 1980s, says Ridgway, it was predominantly in upmarket grocers or delicatessens. The general public probably wouldn't have been aware of it until much later, she adds.

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