The rich history of olives in Spain

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OLIVES are part of Spain’s rich fabric of history. Olive cultivation is known to have occurred in the Mediterranean as far back as 6000 years ago. The Phoenicians and Greeks brought the olive tree to the Iberian Peninsula and olive oil from Hispania was highly regarded in the Roman Empire.

Later the Arabs had a part in the perfection of the production techniques. Their influence is evident in the Spanish word for oil, ‘aciete’, which comes from the Arabic word ‘al-zat’ which means olive juice. Today, Spain is one of the major producers and exporters of olive oil in the world with over 262 variety of olives cultivated.

Out of those only 24 are used regularly in the production of oils. As with wine, the region in which it is produced plays a role in its taste. The Picual variety of olive that grows in the mountainous regions of Granada produces an oil with body and a sweet with a light bitter flavour.

In Malage the Hojiblanca olive produces sweeter oils with a light spicy flavour. This is the oil that is recommended for frying and making bread, pasta and pastries as it has the perfect consistency for dough. They are also often eaten as black table olives thanks to the firmness of their flesh.

Andalucia produces around 75 per cent of Spain’s total olive production, and it is estimated that there are over 165 million olive trees. In the province of Jaen more oil is produced that all of Greece, even though its land surface is only about 10 per cent that of Greece. 

The grades of olive oil are virgin, refined and pomace.

Virgin oil is produced purely by physical methods, with extra virgin olive oil being the first cold-press.  Refined means it has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes and neutralize the acid content. Pure Olive Oil or Olive Oil is a mix of virgin and refined oils. Pomace oil is extracted from the last 5 – 10 per cent that is left in the olive after pressing and is the lowest grade of oil.

In July 2001 the Spanish government put a temporary ban on the sale of Pomace Oil. It was discovered that high levels of contaminant called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), some of which may cause cancer, was found in some pomace-olive products.

High quality olive oil has many health benefits including increasing the level of good cholesterol and reducing blood pressure, which helps to prevent thrombosis.

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