Nothing conveys the importance of olive oil like a smack to the head at two in the morning while trying (with painfully adequate deliberacy) to make an eggplant parmesan; a scolding from a friend of mine who lived in a house where there were certain olive oils you just weren’t allowed to touch. Where these olive oils were from I could not tell you then, or now. However, my appreciation for the fruit and the oil it bears has evolved into a passion made possible by fortunate circumstance.
I live in an area of Spain known for its significant contribution to the world of olive oil (Andalucia), and am fortunate enough to look out on olive trees every morning. Finding a grove involves a car ride lasting barely five minutes. For most of us, olive oil is defined as the first step while following recipe instructions. However, for many Andalucians, olive oil means following in the footsteps of generations of farmers and producers.
Driving south on the A330 near Orce and Alqueria, through the endless areas of badlands broken up by the combed fields of olive and almond trees, you get the sense that you are not in the 21st century. The fields are littered with antiquated and abandoned farming equipment, while the only traffic jams to speak of are those involving goats and overprotective shepherds.
In fact, the modern world has done little to change the way olives are harvested each winter; as cloths are still placed beneath the trees in order to gather the olives knocked down using long sticks. It’s a simple method, and whether it’s a large operation or one of the increasingly harder to find family-owned groves, there are no shortcuts.
The past several years have seen a rise in the popularity of machines harvesting olives by way of shaking the trees, and steel machinery has taken over most of the work that used to be done by donkeys, which turned the stone wheels used to crush olives into a mash. Modern centrifuges have replaced many of the old fashioned presses.
While the processes used to harvest and cultivate olives for oil have changed a little over the years, the culture of olive oil production here hasn’t. I am looking forward to sharing what I learn while exploring what makes olive oil such an integral part of Spanish and Mediterranean life.
It’s funny how searching for new experiences can spark an interest in something quite old.