21 Nov

The land of liquid gold – Andalusia’s olive road

By Manuel Meyer

Jaen, Spain ­ The olive tree is both loved and respected In many Mediterranean countries, but in the Spanish Andalusian region of Jaen, it is held in such esteem as to be almost holy.

The olive plays a major role in this part of southern Spain. The region has around 60 million trees, making it the largest olive tree growing area in the world.

Visitors can get an impression of what the olive means to this area by taking a trip along the Road of Olives.

Tourists wildly beat an olive tree with their wooden sticks and dozens of green olives rain onto the parched earth.

It’s a sight that Jose Maria Mendez can hardly bear to look at. ‘No, no. That’s not how to do it!,’ he says as he demonstrates the correct method once again.

‘If you hit the tree like that you will destroy the olives. You have to comb through the tree from top to bottom,’ says Mendez, who is manager at the Santo Tomas Plantation near Beas de Segura.

Mendez places a net beneath the tree to make it easier to collect the olives that fall before the tourists have a chance to wield their sticks.

After just 30 minutes the job is completed and the olives harvested.

The volunteers or Vareadores, as the olive harvesters are known, gaze contentedly across the sea of trees.

Mendez throws a sack packed with olives into the jeep and drives to the 150-year-old olive mill.

On the way, Mendez stops the jeep occasionally to indicate a particularly beautiful or old tree. ‘Some of these trees are 500 years old,’ he says.

After arriving at the mill, Mendez throws the olives onto the conveyor belt that transports the green and black fruits into the main hall. It is here that the olives are separated from earth and their stones.

They are crushed and the yellow-green fluid is then bottled. Every tourist who comes here can fill his or her own bottle of ‘liquid gold’.

Santo Tomas is not the only plantation to recognise that ‘olive tourism’ is a lucrative source of income.

It is mainly the small plantations in the mountains of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas that try to attract the attention of visitors during the harvest season that runs from November to February.

Growing olives and selling their produce has become very difficult for small olive grove owners. An olive tree bears its first fruit when it is seven years old.

After 10 years, it yields a profit and after 20 years it produces 80 kilogrammes of olives.

‘But that is worth nothing, if we are not able to use modern shaking machines like they do on the large plantations on the plateau,’ says Mendez.

The majority of small olive farms can only survive with the help of subsidies from the European Union. However, that aid is due to run out in 2013.

That is very worrying for the region of Jaen where practically speaking there is an agricultural monoculture.

Jaen has about 60 million olive trees and roughly 20 per cent of the olive oil produced in the world comes from here. Olive oil has steadily grown in popularity over the years and that has helped drive tourism.

That, in turn, has spurred small olive farmers along the ‘Ruta de los Olivos’ to organise cooking courses for tourists involving olive oil or to let them take part in the harvest.

There is no set route to follow as there are several ‘roads’ for olive fans to travel down.

One classic route leads through two cities that have both been declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO: Ubeda and Baeza. The road then leads to Jimena and Jodar.

Ubeda is one of the most beautiful cities in Andalusia thanks to its Renaissance Palaces.

Baeza is noteworthy for its 16th century churches. The provincial capital of Jaen has baths constructed by Arab settlers and the famous Castillo de Santa Catalina is built on a steep incline high above the city.

Of special interest is the Hacienda La Laguna close to Baeza. The local olive museum takes visitors through the different methods of making olive oil.

It is also the home of the largest olive press in Europe at 18 metres in length and 30 tons in weight.

Combining olives, culture and nature is best done by travelling through Jaen, Baeza and Ubeda up to the Sierra de Segura.

Along with olive groves and romantic mountain villages there is also a trekking path that leads through the nature reserve of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas.

The reserve is 214,300 hectares in size, making it the second largest in Europe.

It stretches across one-fifth of the province of Jaen and is home to deer, rams, eagles and wild boar.

Cyclists might want to try the Green Oil Path in the east of Jaen. This path follows the route of a disused railway that was once called the Oil Train.

The route goes from Jaen to the towns of Martos and Alcaudete to the nature reserve of Laguna Honda 60 kilometres away. The line was built between 1882 and 1893 and was used to transport minerals and olive oil out of the region.

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