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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Olive oil
Foods From Spain History: Olive Oil, Rome’s Legacy

Foods From Spain History: Olive Oil, Rome’s Legacy

The olive oil is the natural juice obtained from the fresh, healthy fruits of the olive tree.

The pre-Roman period: beginnings

The Phoenicians, in whose diet olive oil was an essential element, arrived in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula around 1100 BC. Subsequently, the Greeks exported their olive oil culture to the colonies they established along the east coast in the 8th century BC.

The Roman period: large-scale production starts

The Roman period: large-scale production starts

The Romans revolutionized olive growing in Hispania and its trade in olive oil. They extended the area given over to olive growing and made advances in oil extraction methods. They improved the land on which olives and vines were grown, these being the source of the main exportable products, along with cereal. Colonizing the southern province of Baetica therefore became a prime objective. There are appreciative references to the olive oil of Hispania in the writings of many Roman historians, particularly Strabo (64BC-24AD), who stresses its fine quality and high price. Export figures were at their highest between 140 and 160 AD. Remains of jars found on Rome’s Monte Testaccio indicate that between 80 and 1.85% of the olive oil consumed there came from Baetica, where there must have been around 62,000 acres of olive groves. It seems to have been the custom to press white 2.olives, the fount of Hispania’s famous oil, before they were ripe; the oil thus obtained was always kept close at hand for adding to the Romans’ fish condiment, garum, before serving.

The Christian Early Middle Ages: back in time

The fall of the Roman Empire was paralleled by a relative decline in olive production. The incoming Goths were not olive oil consumers: cereal and grapes were more important crops for them than olives, and the manufacture of foodstuffs and culinary diversification went into reverse under their rule. This situation lasted until the Muslim invasions in the 8th century in those parts of the country where they established dominion, and in Christian Spain until as late as the 13th century.

Al-Ándalus: a renaissance in olive oil production and consumption

The Arabs were only moderate wine drinkers, and therefore invested more effort in other crops. Olive oil was an essential ingredient in almost all their dishes. The specific area over which they exercised control for longest (the lower third of the Peninsula and the east coast) was olive territory, and they reinstated olives as a crop and introduced new farming techniques. From the 8th and 9th centuries on, in Hispanic and Sicilian territories, caustic soda and olive oil were used to make soap to Muslim recipes which have barely changed to this day. From the 11th century on, agricultural schools were set up in Al-Ándalus to study different varieties of olive tree, the soils that suited them best, and how to tend them to improve production. Texts have survived, written by the experts of the time, about new growing techniques, irrigation systems and the best ways of making and storing olive oil.

During the Cordoban Caliphate period (912 – 1035), the olive farms of the Guadalquivir valley recovered the splendor they had enjoyed in Roman times. The Moors always used olive oil for frying and in other dishes typical of the medieval period, such as sweet desserts and soused or pickled fish. The current Spanish words for oil (aceite), olive (aceituna) and oil mill (almazara) are all Arabic-derived terms which took over from, or existed in parallel with, words of Latin origin.

It would be true to say, therefore, that there were two Spains in the medieval period as regarded olive oil: Al-Ándalus (the areas under Moorish dominion) and the Kingdom of Aragón, which produced and consumed olive oil, and the regions of Castile, which used more animal fats and lard.

After the Reconquest of Al-Ándalus, the Catholic Monarchs militated in favor of olive growing, promoting it in inland areas of the Peninsula (particularly Aragón) and in Majorca. Additional acreage was given over to olive groves and the number of oil mills in Jaén (now an Andalusian province) tripled between 1475 and 1517.

The modern era: peaks and troughs in olive oil consumption

In the Modern Era (that is starting in 1492), the concepts of preventive medicine and the role of nutrition in good health began to gain acceptance, but a double standard continued to operate as far as consumption of olive oil was concerned. The effects of the plague, and the expulsion of the Jews and Moriscos, who ate no pork products and were the most expert olive oil producers, were reflected in a decline in its consumption. Furthermore, fear of investigation by the Spanish Inquisition was felt even in the kitchen: particular foodways and customs being regarded as proof of crypto-Judaism or of adherence to the Muslim religion.

Olive oil in the three religions

Olive oil in the three religions

Even so, olive oil played a role in the diet and liturgy of all three cultures - Arab, Jewish and Christian. The great classical civilizations attributed the origins of its uses to the gods, and the three great monotheistic religions also believed it to possess purifying, medicinal, magical and sacramental properties:

The Koran, Sura XXIV, 35 (Light) says: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth; His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, and the lamp is in a glass, the glass is as though it were a glittering star; it is lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the east nor of the west, the oil of which would well-nigh give light though no fire touched it, -Light upon light!- God guides to His light whom He pleases; and God strikes out parables for men, and God all things doth know.

Jewish custom requires pure olive oil to be used to light the candles of the menorah (seven-armed candelabrum) in the mikdash (temple). In the Talmud, (Berakhot 57A) olives, and the oil extracted from them, are compared to the people of Israel. It also declares: “One who sees olive oil in a dream can look forward to the shine of the Torah", and the Torah itself (especially the esoteric part) is also compared to olive oil. Olive oil is also the favored choice for Hanukkah candles because of its role in ‘the miracle of the oil’.

In the Christian religion, inheritor of Judaic rituals, olive oil is used for administering the fifth sacrament, that of extreme unction. The ‘holy oils’ with which kings were anointed – another originally Jewish tradition - consist of a mixture of olive oil and other aromatic essences such as balm of Judea. The olive is charged with symbolic significance in the Bible, too, as when the end of the Great Flood is announced by a dove bringing Noah ‘a green olive branch in its beak’ as a sign that the waters have receded (Genesis 8, 11). And it is traditional to substitute olive oil for animal fats in food on prescribed fast days, during Lent for example.

The 18th and 19th centuries: the olive-growing boom

In the mid-18th century, technical advances in farming equipment, and a shift from mule-drawn to ox–drawn ploughs, coincided with a period of thriving trade with overseas territories. Consequently, olive-growing expanded in certain areas and became consolidated in others, thereby setting in train an olive-growing boom that would reach its peak in the 19th century.

In the 19th century, the combination of the emergence of a middle class and a series of land seizures, known as disentailment resulted in more land going under the plough. Meanwhile, advances were achieved in modes of transport. All these factors worked synergistically to advantageous effect: foodstuffs could now be more evenly distributed all over the country, the population was better supplied and exports of native products increased. In the first third of the 19th century alone, exports of olive oil increased from 4,100 to 415,000 bushels. In a century characterized by a surge of nationalism, a new awareness of ‘national cuisine’ emerged and it became something to be embraced.

Spain: the world’s biggest fount of olive oil

The best olive growing areas lie between the latitudes that pass through North Africa and the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in areas near the sea since olive trees thrive on moisture and prefer altitudes below 914.000 m / 3000 ft. Geographical and climatological conditions in much of Spain are therefore ideal for olive growing, and this is precisely why it has been the world’s main olive oil reserve since the 20th century. Its 282 million olive trees produce over a third of the world’s total production, with 30% of the world’s olive oil coming from Andalusia alone. The principal native olive varieties are, in descending order of volume produced: Picual, Cornicabra, Arbequina, Hojiblanca, Picudo, Empeltre and Lechín.

In the last thirty or so years of the 20th century, Spain’s oil sector coped well with revolution on two fronts: industrial, requiring new technology to be taken on board, and gastronomic, with olive oil being declared a key element in the Mediterranean diet and adopted internationally as an essential in haute cuisine.

One of the most revolutionary technological changes in olive oil extraction has been the shift from the traditional pressing method to an innovative two or three phase centrifugation (decantation) system. The first phase produces extra virgin olive oil, alpechín and orujo (liquid and solid residues, respectively), all as separate products; the second phase yields oil and a new solid-waste by-product, alperujo.

An initiative from within the olive oil sector and associated institutions is working to promote the conservation and study of its historical and agrarian heritage. To this end, important research centers have been set up, among them the Andalusian Government’s Institute of Agricultural Research and Training’s Estación de Olivicultura y Elaiotecnia “Venta del Llano”, in Mengíbar (Jaén), and the CSIC’s, Scientific Superior Research Centre, Instituto de la Grasa de Sevilla regarded as among the world’s best in their field.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

The Roman period: large-scale production starts
Spanish excavations in Monte Testaccio, Rome. Courtesy of CEIPAC.

The Modern Era
An Old Woman Cooking Eggs. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.