Did you know that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world? Accordingly to worldatlas.com, Spain produces 5,276,899 metric tons of olive annually and about 75% of the total olive production is concentrated around the Andalusian region. Yup. We have a lot of olive trees here, and the sight of their straight lines of twisted trunks marching across the golden hillsides of southern Spain have inspired many an artist. Van Gogh said that the "rustle of the olive grove has something very secret in it, and immensely old. It is too beautiful for us to dare to paint it or to be able to imagine it." A symbol of wisdom and peace, both beautiful and beneficial to health, the olive tree is an intrinsic ingredient of life in Andalusia.
A brief history of olive oil in Spain
The origin of the olive tree itself is lost in time, but its arrival in Spain is generally attributed to the Phonecians, a culture of voyagers and traders with their roots in the Middle East. They travelled throughout the Mediterranean from approximately 1,500 to 600 BC and are credited with founding the city of Cádiz in 1,100BC to exploit the natural resources in the area. However, it wasn't until the Romans began their rule of the Iberian Peninsula in 212BC that the production of olive oil truly began to develop, evidenced by the discovery of Spanish oil amphorae throughout all Roman provinces. Hadrian even had a coin struck bearing an image of him holding an olive branch underneath the inscription "Hispania".
When the Roman Empire fell in 476AD, olive production declined throughout Europe, except in Southern Spain. The Moors particularly boosted the industry after their arrival in 711, by introducing new varieties of olive tree and sharing their advanced cultivation and production techniques. These two distinct historical origins of olive production in Iberia (Roman and Arabic) are also the sources of the two names for olive in Spanish: 'oliva' and 'aceituna'. The former is from the Latin 'oleum', also giving us 'olivo' (olive tree), while the latter is from the Arabic 'al-zait', meaning 'olive juice', and forming the root of the Spanish word 'aceite' (oil). The preferred term for the fruit here is aceituna, the oil 'aceite de oliva'.
The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil
Described by the Greek poet Homer as 'liquid gold', the health benefits of olive oil were not widely recognised within western cultures until the 1970s. Ancel Keys published his landmark 'Seven Countries Study' in 1970, observing that residents in regions around the Mediterranean Sea had the lowest rates of coronary heart disease of any region studied and that olive oil was being used as the main source of fat. By the end of the 1980s, sales of olive oil in Western countries were booming. So what's so special about it?
Because Extra Virgin Olive Oil Consists of 73% Monounsaturated Fats, it helps to regulate the blood lipid values, reducing 'bad' cholesterol and increasing 'good' cholesterol. The benefits of this include a lower risk of forming arterial plaques (contributors to heart disease and strokes) and kidney-stones, and increased maintenance of bone density in aging women. This monounsaturated fat, called oleic acid, is extremely healthy and is believed to reduce inflammation and have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.
Olive Oil Contains Large Amounts of Antioxidants (molecules that fight damage by free radicals: unstable molecules that can harm cellular structures). Antioxidants are attributed with:
- increasing longevity
- fighting inflammation (linked to the formation of cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and even obesity)
- reducing the risk of heart disease and thrombosis
- acting as a vasodilator
- having a strong anti-bacterial effect
Olive Oil May Reduce The Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Several studies have linked olive oil to beneficial effects on blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. A randomised clinical trial of 418 non-diabetic participants published by the American Diabetes Association in 2011 confirmed the protective effects of olive oil and its efficacy in reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by over 40%.
In summary, the consumption of olive oil (particularly extra virgin olive oil because it is less-refined and therefore richer in vitamins) can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, cancer, kidney stones, diabetes, Alzheimer's and arthritis, and can help to maintain bone mass and increase the length of your life... Pretty amazing stuff! Like many Andalusians, we know what we'll be pouring on our molletes tomorrow morning, and as we provide all of our guests with a free bottle of our own single-estate, organic extra virgin olive oil, they can enjoy these marvelous health benefits in our delicious and healthy oil too!
Types of Olive Grown in Andalusia
The major production provinces in Andalusia are Jaén and Córdoba, and the varieties produced are Hojiblanca, Lechín, Picudo, Picual and Verdial. About 14% of Spain’s olive production is done in the Castilla-La Mancha region, which produces the Cornicabra variety of olive.
Picual oil usually contains 80% monounsaturated oleic acid, an important factor in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, and can offer varying characteristics. Traditionally, touches of fig with a slightly bitter pungency were their distinguishing features, but today earlier harvesting and new techniques make it possible to extract new, different notes, resulting in more fragrant, green, fruity oils.
Cornicabra oils are very fruity and thick, and are very useful for creating highly-esteemed blends with other olive varieties.
Hojiblanca accounts for 16% of the Andalusian production and has a high levels of fatty acid (75%) and linoleic acid (7%). The amount of saturated fatty acids is lower than in most other oils, making it ideal for a healthy diet. It has a large variety of flavors, with the most common attributes being a slight sweet taste in the beginning, a slight bitter taste of unripe fruits, and an almond aftertaste.
Picudo (also called Basta, Carrasqueño, Paseto or Pajarero) are considered very delicate with a tendency to oxidation. The flavor of the oils is soft, with an exotic fruit aftertaste. These olives are excellent as table olives, green and black, and the oils they produce are ideal in warm salads, gazpachos, and pastries.
Lechín oil (the name refers to the milky white color of the flesh of the olive) has a slightly bitter, flavour, leaving an aftertaste of green almonds. This oil is ideal for tapas and sweets.
The name Verdial is given to a number of local varieties with similar characteristics that are produced in areas of Andalusia and the south of Extremadura. A common characteristic of all of them is the thickness of the skin of the fruit, which makes the olives ideal for eating as well as oil production. The oils of the Verdial variety are sweet, very fruity, with no bitter flavor, and are excellent in salads or gazpachos.
The life of the olive tree
Olive trees grow slowly and traditionally bear fruit after fifteen years, reaching maximum productivity after 40 years and beginning to decline after around 140 years. However, there are trees still bearing fruit after 2,000 years. Yes - you read that correctly. 2,000 year-old trees (check out Margarita Gokun Silver's recent article on BBC Travel). At La Cazalla we have around 50 trees, varying from recently planted trees of 3-5 years old up to 100 year-old stalwarts.
Harvesting takes place anytime from November to March, depending on the area, weather and type of olive, and the timing is always the subject of much consideration and discussion. Will another rainfall plump them up for just that little more oil, or do we risk losing all to the first frost? As olives that have fallen from the trees cannot be included within a production labelled 'extra virgin', how many do you sacrifice while the rest ripen? Decisions, decisions...
Once action is undeniable, the harvest itself is completed rapidly with a great deal of hard labour: traditionally olives are harvested by hand, either stroking the fruit from the branches or using long poles the agitate the trees' limbs and shake the olives from them into nets spread below. For the finest quality and flavour, it's best to take the olives to the mill within four days of commencing the harvest, so timing is of the essence. As we sweat from sun-up to sunset, we have to remind ourselves of the end product: La Cazalla's single-estate, organic extra virgin olive oil receives great reviews from our friends here in Ronda and our guests love it.
Part of Andalusian culture for thousands of years, there's no denying the value of olive oil. Whether you want to dip your bread into the finest quality extra virgin variety, use it as soap, prevent breast cancer, cure your back pain, or condition your hair with it, olive oil is truly nature's gift of liquid gold.