A member of the family Oleaceae along with Fraxinus (Ash), Syringa (Lilac), Ligustrum (Privet) and Jasminum (Jasmine),
Olea Europaea is one specie of about 20 evergreen trees and shrubs with opposite leathery leaves. The European olive is a native of the Middle East and
was introduced to Spain by the Moors.
The wild olive (Olea Europa var Oleaster) can be found throughout the Mediterranean. It is distinguished from its cultivated counterpart by its
more shrubby habit, rarely reaching more than 5 metres in height. The fruit is smaller than that of cultivated trees.
Cultivated olives come in many different varieties, which usually originate in the region where they are best grown. The tree can reach an
extremely old age and grow to 15 metres in height, although they are usually pruned to ease harvesting and increase production. Trees of several
hundred years old are not uncommon and some are reputedly more than 1,000 years old. Many of these old trees are still in production.
Grown since time immemorial, the cultivated
olive has long, thin, dark leaves, silvered underneath. The blossom, produced in May or June, is formed in clusters of whitish-yellow flowers which are
sometimes fragrant. The fruits are drupes (stone fruit like plums) and are harvested in autumn and winter. The fruit can be green, purple, black or a
combination of these colours. A quarter to half of their weight is oil.
Spain is one of the world's largest producers of olives and olive oil, with more than two million hectares under cultivation. The largest
producing region is Andalucia with 58% of the country's crop.
Over ninety percent of olives in Spain are harvested for oil, the remainder are pickled to be eaten in salads or used as an aperitif. Ripe
olives can be either be green or black in colour, but when picked from the tree the are extremely bitter and inedible. The olives are allowed to ferment,
usually in brine, and flavoured with herbs. Green pitted olives are often sold stuffed with anchovies, almonds, garlic or red pepper.
Olives are typically harvested between November and February. Traditionally the trees are beaten with poles to shake the fruit loose, and the
olives caught in netting spread out below. However today many employ mechanical devices to shake the tree. For high quality oils the olives are often
picked by hand to avoid bruising the fruit. Once picked the olives are washed before being crushed using heavy rollers to produce a thick paste. The oil
may be separated out from the paste using a press or by centrifuge. Afterwards the oil can be filtered to give a less cloudy appearance.
Cultivation of olive trees is relatively easy and problem free. Trees are planted in late winter or early spring from 2 to 6 years old and cared
for much as any other young tree. On mature trees, pruning is carried out soon after harvesting and consists of cutting out old growth to let the previous
year's growth, that will bear the next fruit, have prominence. Trees are normally hard pruned every other year, with thinning in between. It is said that a
swallow should be able to fly through the centre of a well pruned olive tree without touching the branches.
Varieties considered excellent for oil are Empeltre, Arbequina, Picudo and Blanqueta. Good varieties of table olives are Hojiblanca from Cordoba,
and Manzanilla and Gordal from Seville. Good oil, even the last pressings, will have a variety name and the amount of acidity shown on the label. Acidity
levels differ depending on the oil but should be around 1% for a high quality oil. The lower the level the better the oil.
Trees begin to flower and fruit from about eight years old and produce an average of 25 kilos per tree. This reduces to a quarter or third when
pressed to oil. Oil that is squeezed without heat or excess pressure is known as Extra Virgin and is the highest quality available. As the press heats up
by friction more oil is produced of a lesser quality. The next level down are the oils that are produced by applying heat, increased pressure and the
addition of hot water. Organic olive oil, from the more superior quality olives, has the best taste of all.
Categories of Olive Oil were created and are regulated by the International Olive Oil Council (IOCC) based in Madrid:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil - comes from the first cold pressing of olives, is entirely unrefined, has 0.8% acidity or less and is judged to have a
superior taste. Extra Virgin and Virgin olive oil may not contain refined oil.
Virgin Olive Oil - is entirely unrefined, has 2.0% acidity or less and is judged to have a good taste.
Pure Olive Oil - is a blend of refined and virgin or extra virgin oil, similar to . . .
Olive Oil - a blend of refined and virgin oils, no more than 1.5% acidity and lacking a strong flavour.
Olive-Pomace Oil - a blend of refined pomace olive oil and some virgin oil. Pomace is the sludge left after cold pressings which requires
heat or solvents to flush more oil out. Although fit for consumption, it may not be described simply as olive oil.
Lampante Oil - used in lamps and not suitable to be consumed.
Traditionally, olive oil is the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet. Olives contain few calories and are a good source of vitamin E and antioxidants.
The oil is high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids which may help to lower blood cholesterol levels. The oil is also said to be beneficial against constipation
and peptic ulcers, and can alleviate dry skin and hair. Olives are high in sodium so should be eaten in moderation by anyone with high blood pressure.
Some of the best known brands of olive oil in Spain have been in production since the 1700s. Olive oil is used extensively in Spanish cooking,
and drizzled over bread and salads. Spain exports about twenty percent of its total production, making it the largest exporter of oil in the world.
For 5,000 years the olive tree has been cultivated in and around the Mediterranean. In ancient Greece it was sacred to the goddess Athena.
It is the traditional emblem of goodwill and fertility.