`A Brief History of Olive Oil in Colombia - Olive Oil Times

A Brief History of Olive Oil in Colombia

Mar. 29, 2014
Christopher Burke

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Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Villa de Leyva, Leyva rhymes with Ava (as in Ava Gardner), is a white­washed colo­nial vil­lage, and now a National Monument, located in the Valle de Saquencipá about 4 hours from Bogotá, Colombia. The vil­lage dates from the late 1500’s and it some­times feels in Villa de Leyva that you are present in a place that time has for­got­ten. Or put another way, it is often pos­si­ble in Villa de Leyva to step back in time. And if you do step back in time here, you will find your­self present at the intro­duc­tion by the Spaniards of olive vines to the New World.

Even though olive oil has been pro­duced in Villa de Leyva since the 1600’s, cul­ti­va­tion of the olive was orig­i­nally con­fined to reli­gious orders. In fact, the Jesuits and the Dominicans are cred­ited with bring­ing the first olive cut­tings to Colombia or to the New Kingdom of Granada, as the area was known in the 16th cen­tury. For at least two cen­turies, the olive oil pro­duced here was for purely local con­sump­tion. In fact, until quite recently Colombians in gen­eral have had no tra­di­tion of cook­ing with olive oil at all.

Then in 1875, another Spaniard, José María Gutierrez de Alba, got per­mis­sion from Spain to set up an insti­tute called the Instituo Agrícola in Villa de Leyva. Under the aus­pices of his insti­tute, Gutierrez de Alba was instru­men­tal in plant­ing more than 5,000 olive trees in the area between Sáchica and Villa de Leyva. Hopes were high for a native South American source of olive oil. And in fact, despite the lack of sea­sons, olive oil was con­se­quen­tially pro­duced and sent to mar­ket in the cap­i­tal of the coun­try, Bogotá.

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Cold win­ters and dry sum­mers, are absent here. Colombia lacks sea­sons in the tra­di­tional sense; there are those who insist that we do indeed have 4 sea­sons, 3 months of sum­mer fol­lowed by 3 months of win­ter, fol­lowed again by 3 more months of sum­mer and then once again 3 more months of win­ter. The truth is that the weather through­out the year is uni­form and true cold is unknown. In addi­tion, in Colombia in gen­eral, and in the Villa de Leyva region in par­tic­u­lar, it rains through­out the year, some­times tor­ren­tially.

Despite the unfa­vor­able con­di­tions, mod­er­ate pro­duc­tion of olive oil con­tin­ued until the 1960’s. And for 15 years begin­ning in the late 1950’s, the gov­ern­ment made an effort to focus on the devel­op­ment of the olive indus­try. Research at the time found was that only five vari­eties of the olive had good prospects for pro­duc­tion in the areas around Villa de Leyva. Things were look­ing up for a very short time.

Then the vio­lence that over­came Colombia took a toll on the olive cul­ti­va­tors of Villa de Leyva. It became too dan­ger­ous for the olive own­ers and pro­duc­ers to stay in the area. For safety rea­sons, they were forced to leave their land, and the olive groves of Saquencipá were left to fend for them­selves. Many olive trees were cut down and used for fire­wood.

Decades later, the vio­lence sub­sided and the olive grow­ers of the Valle de Saquencipá were able to return to their olive groves, only to find their olive trees besieged by a native par­a­site and a fun­gus. The prospect of pro­duc­ing any olive oil at all was dis­heart­en­ing. Lacking finan­cial resources and invest­ment, many olive grow­ers sim­ply gave up.

The pro­duc­tion of olive oil in Colombia has always been arti­sanal. There are still some cen­turies old olive groves in the areas around Villa de Leyva, but in gen­eral they exist only as a sad reminder of what was once a dream, the sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion of olive oil in the coun­try.

There remain only two fam­i­lies in the Villa de Layva area that har­vest olives and pro­duce olive oil. They con­tinue their work more from a sense of tra­di­tion and respect for the past than from any like­li­hood of finan­cial gain. Their prod­uct is not cheap and it is hardly com­pet­i­tive in the mar­ket­place. But these remain­ing Colombian pro­duc­ers of olive oil insist that their artise­nal oil is the purest on earth.

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