AN INTRODUCTION TO ANDALUSIA
In 2013 “the Mediterranean diet” was inscribed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, jointly put forward by Spain and six other Mediterranean countries. Emphasising values of hospitality, craftsmanship and traditions, few places across the country evoke the image of this diet than Andalusia. It is at the heart of local life, reflecting the many cultures and civilizations who have tilled it land over the centuries. In the balmy climate, tapear – to go out for tapas – is many locals’ preferred way to spend an evening. Indeed, while Andalusia is celebrated for its sun-kissed beaches, passionate flamenco and unique Moorish architecture, one of the many reasons that visitors flock to the south of Spain is for its vibrant food culture.
At the heart of it all is the olive, which the most abundant crop in the region and basic to the region’s cooking. This provenance story looks at the fruit’s relationship with the region, from growing trees to the harvest, its use in nutrition and medicine, and of course, the dinner table. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil and it largest region is responsible for around three quarters of the country’s total production. The major olive-producing province is Jaen, though Cordoba, Sevilla and Almeria share visions of a landscape defined by enormous olive groves rolling over the hills. Jaen alone produces more olive oil annually than the whole of Italy, with over 550,000 hectares of land devoted to more than 66 million olive trees.
‘Roman oileries are reported from the first and second centuries AD in Andalusia, in the Guadalquivir valley. It’s estimated that during this period Hispinia exported more than 30 million vessels of oil, with thousands of empty vessels from Baetica found on Rome’s Monte Testaccio, a man-made hill formed of countless discarded amphorae. ’
The history of the olive is intimately linked to the people and culture of the Mediterranean. The trees thrive in the climate and are extremely resilient to drought and relatively barren soil. It is thought that the olive tree (Olea europaea var. europaea) was domesticated from the wild oleaster (Olea europaea var. sylvestris) around 6,000 years ago, starting in the Eastern part of the basin before slowly spreading into the Western Mediterannean by the Early Bronze Age, around 4,500 years ago. Phoenician traders are responsible for helping spread the olive to the shores of Africa and Southern Europe. The oil itself is documented as being used as lamp fuel and in religious ceremonies around 2,500 years ago, and specifically in cooking at least 500 years BC.
Archaeologists have found a number of interesting items at sites around Andalusia, including milling stones, decanting basins and storage vessels containing residue from olive plants. Around the Mediterranean, Bronze age sites have revealed ancient papyri and frescos, while later historians, such as Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius, record cultivation, processing and transportation techniques from the age of the Roman Empire. In fact, it was the Romans who helped make oil what it is today in Andalusia, at the time known as Baetica in Hispania. Pliny and Vitruivus detail techniques and machinery to mechanize the pressing process (trapetum, mola molearia, canallis et solea, torcular, prelum and tudicula). Each of these used a system of counterweights and levers to press on the olive baskets and extract oil.
Roman oileries are reported from the first and second centuries AD in Andalusia, in the Guadalquivir valley. It’s estimated that during this period Hispinia exported more than 30 million vessels of oil, with thousands of empty vessels from Baetica found on Rome’s Monte Testaccio, a man-made hill formed of countless discarded amphorae. Under the Moors, the economic foundation of Al-Andalus rested on agriculture, livestock and trade, and they brought many innovations around water storage and distribution for this purpose. Much was written about the properties of oil under the 12th century Caliphate, and much of today’s heritage comes from this period. In fact, the very word oil in Castellano – aceite – derives from the Arabic Al-Zeit, meaning olive juice. In the Middle Ages, traditional techniques remained and olive oil was used for soaps, fuel and of course, food. Later, cultivation expanded across the country with the construction of the railways in the 19th century.
‘It takes roughly 4 or 5 kilos of olives to produce a litre of olive oil, depending on the quality of the fruit The denomination “extra virgin” – virgen extra – is only given to oils with low acidity and exceptional flavour, colour and smell.’
OLIVE GROWING, HARVEST & OIL PRODUCTION
Young olive trees start producing fruit after about seven years, and reach maturity between thirty and seventy years, depending on the variety. The lifespan is 300 to 600 years, but throughout the Mediterranean you can find trees over 1,000 years old. Olive trees start to flower in late spring, and in Andalusia the harvest starts at the end of November right through to February, also depending on the variety. At this time of year the olive changes its colour, changing from green to purple, black or yellow. Many believe that green olives and black olives different varieties of tree, but in fact the green ones are just unripe olives which are picked early for eating pruposes, known as verdear or “greening.” In Andalucia the custom is to use green olives for eating and black ones for oil.
Traditionally, the process of making oil goes through several stages of crushing and rinsing the fruit after picking or beating them off the trees. In smaller groves, this is often a rather festive occasion and involves the whole family. After washing and removing the stones, the pulp was placed into woven esparto-grass baskets and then pressed, with the final oil washed through using hot water. Olive oil is lighter than water, so it can be left in a reservoir to settle and then be separated either by stoppers or ladled by hand. This process is repeated until the purest oil remains. Nowadays, the mashing, pressing and filtering is mechanised, though smaller groves still use the traditional methods. The large conical stones that are often found decorating entrances to Andalusian farms were used for pressing olives until fairly recently – the tip of the cone held an axle, while an ox or mule dragged the base over the olives to release the oil from the fruit.
Regardless of the milling process used, the three elements which result from the milling process are the oil itself, the fibrous orujo and a bitter, unwanted substance called alpechin, or amurca. While orujo is used for heating fuel and baking bricks, alphechin is in fact a pollutant of groundwater sources and recycling methods are still being worked out. It takes roughly 4 or 5 kilos of olives to produce a litre of olive oil, depending on the quality of the fruit The denomination “extra virgin” – virgen extra – is only given to oils with low acidity and exceptional flavour, colour and smell. Oils become more acidic as the fruit ferments (either on the ground or in storage while they wait to be milled. Additionally, they might be mixed with aceite de orujo, producing a blend like a blended wine.
‘Andalusia’s famous gazpacho is where you might find the closest connection with the fruit. In its simplest form as peasant food, gazpacho is simply bread, crushed garlic and olive oil, plus other earthy ingredients such as cucumber, tomato, onions, peppers, or in Málaga, some crushed blanched almonds.’