Chile Celebrates Olives From Azapa

This year, the small, fertile valley achieved its hard-fought geographic indication, On the far northern edge of the Atacama desert, Azapa receives no rain, yet wells fed by the winters in the high plains above provide year-round water.

Dec. 8, 2016
By Vera Leone Pavelic

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What does the olive mean to me?” asked Juan de Dios Araya, Parcela Gallo admin­is­tra­tor. Life,” he stated sim­ply, in the recently released short doc­u­men­tary Azapeña, which tells the story of the olive in Chile’s Azapa Valley. 

This year, the small, fer­tile val­ley achieved its hard-fought geo­graphic indi­ca­tion, Olives from Azapa. More than half of the land there is used for cul­ti­vat­ing olives, which are most notable for their vibrant vio­let color, high flesh to pit ratio, and sim­ple brine fer­men­ta­tion. Azapa, on the far north­ern edge of the Atacama desert, receives no rain, yet wells fed by the win­ters in the high plains above pro­vide year-round water. 

The groves trace their lin­eage back to Sevillian trees brought to Peru by wealthy Spanish set­tler Antonio de Ribera — but have since devel­oped their own fla­vors and char­ac­ter­is­tics due to the local cli­mate and nat­ural pro­cess­ing. Afrodescendant peo­ple have played a huge role in cul­ti­vat­ing olives here, and the groves are an inte­gral part of their cul­ture and way of life. ‘(Olives) give us every­thing, deliver all we need,” said Waldemar Hunaca Baluarte, also fea­tured in Azapeña, directed by Daniela Echeverría Donoso..

More than 400 years after the first olives were planted in Azapa, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet con­ferred the geo­graphic indi­ca­tion upon them, in May of this year. Azapa farms, vir­tu­ally all of which are owned by area fam­i­lies, and range from just one to 50 hectares, can now ben­e­fit from this seal of ori­gin on their olives, oils, and tape­nades, pro­tect­ing their authen­tic­ity, tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion meth­ods and pre­serv­ing land and water for future generations. 

Azapeña olives, while per­haps influ­enced by the cos­mopoli­tan nature of the val­ley (the promi­nent Afrodescendant com­mu­nity, and those of Aymara indige­nous her­itage, along with colo­nial set­tlers from Italy, Spain, Greece and Croatia over the cen­turies), main­tain the most basic of prepa­ra­tions, accord­ing to Roxana Gardilcic Boero, pres­i­dent of the Association of Olive Growers of the Azapa Valley (ASOVA).

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We only put the olive in water and salt,” revealed Gardilcic. But aside from that, we have a cli­mate that helps us. This cli­mate allows for spon­ta­neous fer­men­ta­tion,” a slow process, Gardilcic explained, that might take nine months or so, but pre­serves many of the nutri­tive ele­ments of the olives, with­out using other chem­i­cals or additives. 

ASOVA was formed by a group of 35 pas­sion­ate and ded­i­cated olive grow­ing fam­i­lies in 2012, and serves as a cross­roads for tra­di­tion, fam­ily and the his­tory sur­round­ing the olive tree in Azapa. Over the past twenty years, Azapa grow­ers have applied for the geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tion four times, and finally achieved suc­cess in 2016, accord­ing to Chilean news source Chasquis.

Azapa Valley, Chile

The seal of ori­gin is an impor­tant boon to olive grow­ers in this region seek­ing to pro­tect their tra­di­tions and their prod­ucts, who in recent years have had to com­pete against multi­na­tional seed cor­po­ra­tions mak­ing advances on Azapa lands. 

We have lived so long with the olive that even we don’t know the impor­tance of what we’ve inher­ited,” stated Gardilcic, dis­cussing the cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of the olive in Azapa. Olives are part of Chile’s cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal land­scape, accord­ing to Gardilcic. 

Hundreds of years ago the Spanish con­querors car­ried olives across the desert, intend­ing to use the crude olive oil to illu­mi­nate the churches they built along the route to the sil­ver mines in Potosí. And so, what you have with the olive from Azapa,” Gardilcic said, is a cul­tural her­itage, it is a her­itage because of its qual­ity, and it is a prod­uct unique in all the world.”

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