The natural juice obtained from the fresh, healthy fruits of the olive, extra virgin olive oil, is widely revered as one of the great ingredients in Spanish gastronomy. Its varied aromas and flavors, culinary versatility and health-giving attributes have been acknowledged and extolled by chefs, gourmets and nutritionists the world over.
Spain’s geography and climate – with extensive mountain slopes, mild or cold winters, and long, hot summers – are ideal for olive cultivation. The olive tradition existed prior to the Roman domination of Spain, although it was the Romans who extended cultivation and developed oil production. Over the centuries, olive-growing has had an uneven history in line with political, economic and even religious affairs, but its overwhelming, constant presence has molded the landscape in many parts of Spain and, to some extent, determined the lifestyle and eating habits of its inhabitants. And the tradition has now been revitalized.
The olive oil revolution
More than 350 million olives are grown all over Spain, and in some regions the olive landscape is staggering. This is the case in some parts of Andalusia where extensive olive orchards grow alongside holm and cork oaks on broad plains or alongside green pine forests on mountain slopes, creating a landscape of outstanding beauty and personality.
Spain is also the world’s leading source of the golden juice of the olive fruit, the essence of Mediterranean cuisine. It produces about half the world’s total olive oil, of which about 46% is exported, making Spain the world’s leading olive oil producer and exporter. Average annual production of olive oil in Spain over recent years has been around 1.75 million tons.
There have also been important qualitative changes that have place Spain at the forefront of trends for the future of the international olive-growing industry. In recent decades, the Spanish olive sector has undergone a complex revolution. By emphasizing the results of scientific progress and experimentation, Spain has raised the quality and diversity of its olive oils to the highest levels in history.
Advanced growing systems, drip irrigation, integrated production and environmentally-friendly growing practices lead to almost perfect fruits which are harvested at their optimum ripeness, when the oil content offers maximum aromas and flavors. In addition to the careful tending and harvesting of the fruit, the use of innovative extraction technology, adapted to the characteristics of each olive variety and their respective degrees of ripeness, yields oil that retains the multiple nuances that existed in the original fruit.
A wealth of olive varieties
The great range of native olives expresses the geographical diversity of Spain. In Andalusia, the star is the Picual variety. Mainly grown in the province of Jaén, its growing area also extends into the neighboring provinces of Córdoba and Granada, as well as northwards into Castile-La Mancha and other regions.
This extensive growing area means that Picual oils may offer varying characteristics. Traditionally, touches of fig with a slightly bitter pungency were their distinguishing features, but today's earlier harvesting and new techniques make it possible to extract new, different notes, resulting in more fragrant, green and fruity oils.
The second most widely-produced variety is Cornicabra, which is mostly grown in Castile-La Mancha and other parts of central Spain. The resulting oils are very fruity and thick, and are very useful for creating highly-esteemed blends with other olive varieties.
Another of the great Spanish varieties is Arbequina, which is originally from Catalonia, where it grows widely. Its agronomic qualities and the sweet fruitiness of its oils have led to its cultivation in other regions, as well as in other olive-growing countries like Argentina, Chile and Australia. Other important Spanish varieties include Hojiblanca and Picudo, whose oils also have clearly-defined personalities. Empeltre from Aragon, Lechín from Seville, and the list goes on and on... All together, the Spanish map of native olives includes about 260 varieties.
In addition to native varieties, other types of olives from the Mediterranean basin are now being grown in Spain – a fact that only contributes to the diversity of aromas and flavors of Spanish olive oils. These include the Greek Koroneiki and the popular Frantoio from Tuscany (Italy).
Another example of the strides being made by the Spanish olive oil sector is its warm reception of the EU-recognized Protected Denominations of Origin (PDO). These have motivated producers in some traditional production areas to protect the special characteristics of their oils by adopting strict quality control criteria. In addition, the Mengíbar olive growing center in Jaén and the Fats and Oils Institute in Seville – both of them considered top-tier research centers on a worldwide level – have contributed greatly to efforts to improve growing and extraction techniques.
Olive oil is an essential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine and consequently in traditional Spanish gastronomy. Furthermore, olive oils have consolidated their role in avant-garde Spanish cuisine where they are being featured in creative partnerships and unusual transformations. In the hands of chefs like Dani García in Málaga and Paco Roncero in Madrid and many others, extra virgin olive oil is being presented in new original ways and textures, often as the centerpiece of innovative recipes.
Spain is also the world’s leading source of the golden juice of the olive fruit, the essence of Mediterranean cuisine. It produces about half the world’s total olive oil, of which about 46% is exported, making Spain the world’s leading olive oil producer and exporter.
Santiago Botas/@ICEX. Edited by Adrienne Smith/@ICEX