25 Nov

Olive orchards proliferate in Spain

By Martha Proctor,

Of the so many things to savor about our recent trip to Spain, I was struck by the dominant crop on the arid land. As our 747 approached Madrid, we looked down and saw huge orchards of olive and almond trees stretching for miles.

The fruits of both trees permeate the Mediterranean diet, which is based fundamentally on olive oil. Green olives and/or olive oil appear prominently and abundantly in appetizers, tapas, vegetables, main dishes, salads and pasta. Almonds are used to thicken sauces, enhance the flavor of main dishes, soups, vegetables and desserts.

With more than 300 million olive trees, Spain grows more olive trees than any other country and is the world’s leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter. Modern production techniques allow a tree to reach maturity after five years; however, maximum maturity isn’t reached until after 40 years. After 140 years, productivity declines, though thousand-year-old trees can bear rich loads of fruit.

There are reputedly 250 types and regional varieties of olives in Spain. About 80 percent of the crop is concentrated in Andalusia in southern Spain, the biggest olive growing area on the planet. Spain’s horticultural crops do best when grown in zones with a Mediterranean or subtropical climate. Unfortunately, southern Spain is the driest part of Europe and is facing a water crisis due to several years of severe drought. The horticulture of Andalusia is dependent on irrigation and the use of armies of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa. As in Marin, the construction of desalination units is being considered.

Olea europa, the only cultivated species of olive, is a small tree in the family Oleaceae that is found in dry, rocky places in the Mediterranean. Olive trees do best on calcareous soils, so are planted throughout Spain on limestone slopes. The trees have opposite, leathery, gray-green leaves and produce panicles of small, white flowers prior to bearing ovoid fruits.

Trees are regularly pruned to preserve the flower-bearing shoots of the preceding year and to keep the tree low enough to allow easy gathering of fruit from late November through the end of March. Harvesting is done by hand or with a stick to shake the fruit onto tarpaulins arranged around the tree.

Olives are subjected to fermentation or cured with lye or brine to improve palatability. Green and black olives are soaked in a solution of sodium hydroxide and finally washed thoroughly with water to remove oleuropein, a naturally bitter carbohydrate. Between 2 and 5 pounds of olives are needed to make 1 pound of oil.

Olive cultivation and oil extraction were brought to Iberia by the Phoenicians around 1050 BCE, and again by the Greeks between 600 to 700 BCE but it was the Romans who turned Iberian oil into an industry. When the Roman Empire fell, olive oil production declined throughout most of Europe. In 711 when the Arabs arrived in Spain bringing new varieties and techniques, Spain saw an increase in cultivation. After 1492 when the Catholics conquered the Moors, in what is known as the Spanish Reconquest, the Catholic monarchs instituted the Inquisition, whereby all Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or emigrate. The use of olive oil was replaced with pork and lard, signs that one had converted to Catholicism.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Spanish cookbook writers began to extol the virtues of olive oil. In the 1960s, Spain began to export high-priced olive oil to the U.S. in exchange for cheap American soybean oil. Millions of acres of ancient olive groves were ripped up and replaced by water-guzzling soybean crops. At the same time, many Spanish families stopped using olive oil. This allowed Italian producers to step in and take over foreign markets.

To this day, Spain exports millions of tons of olive oil to Italy, a fancy label is stuck on an attractive bottle, and it’s then re-exported for twice the price. This situation is rapidly changing as the best producing regions are now protected by the “Denominaci n de Origen” system. Within that system, Aceite de Oliva Virgin-Extra is said by some authorities to be the most flavorsome Spanish virgin olive oil.

In Marin, we are lucky to live near the McEvoy Ranch west of Petaluma and the Frantoio Ristorante and Olive Oil Company in Mill Valley, which successfully plant and produce specialty olive oils for sale in top-of-the-line markets. Wherever it is produced, olive oil should be consumed within 12 months of bottling as it can begin to turn rancid after 15 months. Store in a dry place out of sunlight and enjoy.

The Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. The group’s award-winning “Bay Area Gardening,” a book of essays from weekly IJ columns, can be ordered by sending $20 made to “UC Regents” to Marin Master Gardeners, 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato 94947; or call the Master Gardener desk at 499-4204.

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