The mighty olive

Olive field by Virgen de la Cabeza, Ronda

There is nothing lovelier than an olive tree – this symbol of peace with its silvery leaves and its twisted body. Sometimes the trunk will divide at the root and grow like entangled lovers, Siemese twins or like a couple who separated in mid-life and came back together in old age. You may strip the tree of all its limbs and cut it down to its very root, yet branches come back, still producing the mighty little fruit we call olives.

Olive trees can live for centuries, the trunk becoming a veritable wall of gnarly wood. Their productive years start between 5 to 20 years of age, while the trees can go on producing a good olive crop for 100 to 150 years, after which their production will decline in quantity, though not in quality! The oldest known living olive tree is on the island of Crete and is now past her third millennia!

These days Rondeño farmers are harvesting their olives, hitting the trees with poles so the ripened fruit fall onto canvas tarps on the ground. Some have invested in more advanced equipment, such as a metal rake with moving teeth (an idea likely borrowed from the movie Edward Scissorhands). Others still gather each and every olive from the branch patiently by hand, or ordeño, though these days the latter group is far less common.

There have been olives in Andalucía at least since the Phoenicians came here some 3,000 years ago, though carbon testing brings the olive’s presence on the Iberian continent back almost 6000 years. The quality of olive oil from Hispania was already highly regarded by the Roman Empire. Later, the Arabs perfected the technique of olive oil production in Spain, where aceite, the word for oil comes from Arabic ‘al-zat’, or olive juice. These ancient trees and their thousand-year-old harvest traditions are not only an important part of the Andalucían history and landscape, they are also an integral part its  economy.

Spain is by far the world’s largest producer and exporter of olives, making over 40% of the world’s olive oil, approximately 6 million tons per year. Italy is second with over 20%, followed by Greece at about 12%. This may be a surprise to many foreigners who often think that Tuscany is the Mecca of olive production. Though I do not have this from a completely scientific source, it is said that when Italian olive crops fail, large quantities of Spanish olive oil are exported to Italy, where it is exported as Italian oil.

Out of the 262 varieties of olives cultivated in Spain, 24 are used in oil production. Andalucía in the south is Spain’s premier olive growing region, with an approximate 165 million olive trees or 75% of the Spanish production. Olive trees produce better fruit in poor, rocky soil, making Andalucía ideal for olives. The province of Jáen alone produces more olive oil than all of Greece, in 1/10 of the surface area. These giant oil-producing farms looks like a fine cross-stitching planned from outer space, where equal-sized and perfectly spaced olive trees are planted with mathematical precision as far as the eye can see.

Around Ronda olive production takes on a less industrial approach. Most farmers have somewhere between half a dozen to a few hundred trees, ranging in size from tweed-like babies, scraggly teens, sturdy adults to bent centurions. Olives provide locals with a strong connection to the past. One of the mills nearby, El Vínculo, has been in the same family since 1755, and they still use the same ancient extraction method, pressing the olives between heavy stone disks. The oil is green, slightly ‘muddy’ and much courser than the comercial oil one finds in the supermarket, but that is indeed how olive oil is supposed look and taste like. LA Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil also comes from a country estate near Ronda, where an order of nuns began producing olive oil more than 200 years ago.

Lovely as they look, olives are too bitter to be eaten right off the tree and must be cured to soften the fruit and to reduce their intrinsic bitterness. The process varies depending on the region, the species and the desired taste. People around here usually cure their olives in water or brine (a concentrated salt-water solution), submerging the olives for several weeks. Olives can also be pickled or cured in oil. More efficient, time-saving curing methods include nasty chemicals that one would rather not think about as one snacks on olives while having a cerveza at the bar…

The color of the olive in your jar corresponds to the ripeness of the fruit when picked. Most olives start out green, passing through stages of pinkish, purple and brown, then approaching black as they mature. Green olives are considered to be ripe when they have reached full size, but have not yet begun to change color. The riper the olive, the more oil it will give, thus black olives are generally used for olive oil, while green olives are commonly used for eating.

Once the olives are harvested, they need to be brought as quickly as possible to the mill be pressed. First, the olives are washed to remove mud, twigs and leaves. The fruit is then squeezed to a paste, before they separate solid from liquid, either through the traditional system of pressure, or by a more modern centrifuge system. In Ronda, many growers bring their olives to a co-op, where they get oil corresponding to the amount of olives they bring in. They are not guaranteed to get the oil from their own olives, but as most olives around here are grown in similar conditions, it seems to be the common route for smaller non-commercial producers.

The first juice to come out is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, often referred to as the first pressing. The oil is only a ‘virgin’ if it is pressed without the use of any chemicals. The traditional way of processing the olives are without heat, explaining the bottle-label ‘cold pressed’. However, in order to reduce costs and increase production, producers will often heat the paste after the first pressing to extract higher levels of oil (though this oil no longer can be classified as ‘extra virgin’). Only 10% of the oil produced qualify as ‘extra virgin’, making it the most costly. Usually lower grades of oils are produced from secondary and tertiary pressings, where the paste is passed through chemicals and additional heat to extract more oil from the same paste.

Olives and olive oil are crucial in Mediterranean and Northern African cooking, and for good reason! Olive oil is recommended for living a long, healthy life, and is probably the reasons for all the plus-110-year-olds discovered on remote Greek islands. The olive is a virtual super food: Olive oil decreases blood cholesterol and helps reduce high blood pressure. Olives are rich in the antioxidant Vitamin E and contains anti-inflammatory polyphenols and flavonoids. They are full of iron and copper and a source of dietary fiber. There are demonstrated evidence that olives benefit the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, musculoskeletal, immune, inflammatory, and digestive system. Need I go on?

Many decades ago in my (even more) ignorant youth, I lived in Loutraki, an ugly little town on the wrong side of the Peloponnesus channel. Like most Scandinavians at the time, I was abhorred by how everything the locals cooked was bathing in oil (the Greeks are the world’s biggest consumers of olive oil, averaging 400-liter per family per year!) How things change. Here we are, like the Andalucían townspeople, pouring the liquid onto our bread without abandon!

My husband and I are still looking for an olive tree to plant on our terrace. Not any old olive, mind you. We are looking for a windswept and gnarly one, worthy of the trees long and fascinating history. We will let you know when we find it.

Olive field at the foothill of a snow-capped Serranía de Ronda, December 2013.

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