What's in an olive?

Symmetry of the Andalucian Olive Groves.
Symmetry of the Andalucian Olive Groves.

What's in an olive?

As you travel along the mountain road from Granada, the white village which appears below in the valley, with its high-towered castle-church, resembles a ship sailing across a rolling sea of bushy, low-lying, gnarled trees... those trees that produce the cholesterol-free green gold which all the world desires. Montefrio's olive oil is known for its purity and pungent flavour; in fact, much of the highly reputed and very expensive Italian-brand olive oil which is sold in New York in those pretty golden tins is the product of our groves, cleverly shipped across the Med and packed for re-export by the descendants of Machiavelli.



The main difference between the quality of olive oil and the quality of wine is that fermentation improves grape juice but damages olives. The best oil comes from olives which reach the mill in unfermented condition; the oil which is produced by the first simple pressing is known as virgin, or extra virgin, depending on the quality of its smell and taste. From Roman times up to the first half of 20th century, olives were crushed between mill stones, turned by hand or dragged by an ox or mule. The large conical stones which one sees decorating the entrance gates to Andalucian farms were in use until very recently; the tip of the cone was attached to an axle and the mule dragged the base in a circle over the olives which were shovelled onto it. With the Industrial Revolution, a press composed of huge pistons was invented. Round straw mats, with a circular hole in the middle, called carpachos, were placed over the pistons one by one, after shovelling layers of olives between them. When pressure was applied on the piston, this multiple sandwich compressed and the oil which oozed out of the mats was caught in a vat below. One of these curious machines is still in use in Montefrio, at the Molino de San Cristobal. Our other mills, however - the Cooperativa de San Francisco and the Torre del Sol, use modern stainless steel equipment (all imported from Italy), which crushes the olives between rollers and then separates the resulting mash, diluted with warm water, by centrifugal spinning.

The three elements which result from the milling process are oil, fibre (called orujo) and a very bitter substance called alpechin. When foreigners come to Spain for the first time they all invariably make the mistake of picking a fat, shiny olive and biting into it, to the delight of the locals, who point the way to the nearest fountain so that the gagging victim can rinse out his mouth. When olives are cured for eating rather than oil, and left in a solution of briny water, this substance is slowly released and rises to the surface, like a black scum.

(It is interesting to note that the elimination of the alpechin is a major ecological problem in Spain, not only because it stinks - especially in summer - but also because it can pollute groundwater sources. After all the oil has been removed from the fibrous orujo, the remaining sawdust-like substance is used for heating fuel and for baking bricks and ceramics, but no one has yet devised a way of recycling the unwanted alpechin. The ponds you see in the countryside, full of black liquid (or the dried remains thereof) are where the alpechin is dumped. These ponds, or alpechineras, are now supposed to be a minimum distance from inhabited areas, but there is one near Montefrio's Plaza del Convento which can often be smelled, from the other side of the high white wall, as you walk up into El Coro.)

The village of Montefrio.
The village of Montefrio

All oil produced in Montefrio is virgin for the simple reason that we do not have a "refinery". The refineries, in the outskirts of the larger cities, take the fibrous orujo and, using a chemical process, extract more oil from it. This "refined" oil, called aceite de orujo or orujillo, is much blander in taste and paler in colour, and of course commands much lower prices. If you buy "aceite virgen" in the supermarkets you will usually see in the small print that it is in fact virgen blended with aceite de orujo, in the same way that old wines are blended with new. But since there is no factory able to chemically process the pulp in Montefrio, ours is guaranteed 100% virgin.

The value of the oil is also determined by the percentage of acidez, or acidity. Olives which have fallen or been picked from the tree some days or weeks before milling will be more fermented, and therefore have higher levels of acidity, , than those which are milled immediately; the proper handling and washing of the olives also helps to prevent fermentation. In order to qualify as virgin oil, acidity should be below 1% (although experts differ on the exact threshold). Most of the oil milled in Montefrio, for example, has a 0.4% acidity content, which is very low. When the level of acidity in the olives reaching the mill is too high, they must be sent to the refinery, along with the residual orujo.

The denomination "extra virgin" - in Spanish, virgen extra - is only given (by an official taster from the Instituto de la Grasa in Seville) to oil with, as well as low acidity, exceptionally good flavour, colour and smell.

At a typical modern mill, such as the Cooperativa de San Francisco and the Torre del Sol, the process is as follows: the olives are dumped from the truck into a bin, from which they are fed by conveyor belts to machines outside the mill building which remove the leaves and branches and wash them clean. Then they are fed into the building where they are crushed and processed, as described above. The resulting oil must stand for several months in huge vats so that any remaining solid particles can sediment to the bottom, before being sold.

It takes roughly 4 or 5 kilos of olives to produce a litre of olive oil, depending on the quality of the fruit, and the farmers either take away the agreed amount of oil for their own use, or sell the olives to the mill; but since most farmers only require a small amount of oil for their own use, about 95% of the total crop is sold for cash. The increasingly high price - currently about 100 pesetas per kilo - has touched off a real "olive fever", with new trees being planted everywhere, usually in the place of almond trees and cereals for animal fodder. European subsidies have had an encouraging effect on this trend, as can be imagined. A tree can bear between 50 and 150 kilos of olives, and it takes about 8 years for a new tree to begin bearing fruit.

Many visitors to Spain believe that green olives and black olives are grown on different varieties of tree, but in fact the green ones are just unripe olives which are picked early, in October (the picking of green olives for eating purposes is called verdear, or "greening"). The fruit must be left to ripen and turn black, until January or February, before it can be picked for milling. In Andalucia the custom is to use green olives for eating and black ones for oil; black olives are virtually never used for eating purposes.

Symmetry of the Andalucian Olive Groves
Harvest of the Andalucian Olives

The harvesters work in teams - cuadrillas - of four or five; the men use long sticks to beat the branches, and the women spread huge nets - mantas (once made of canvas, nowadays of nylon mesh) under the tree and gather the olives which fall into it. Since the terrain is very mountainous, the edges of the lower part of the net are propped up with stakes, to prevent the olives from bouncing down the hill. But the windfalls must be picked off the ground by hand first, which means that more women are needed when the winter has been stormy than when all the fruit has stayed on the branches.

The soil of the olive groves is tilled constantly and herbicide is used to prevent grass from taking hold, because the farmers believe that this aerates the roots and encourages permeation of rainfall (while the ecologists complain that, due to wind erosion, it is adding to the desertification process which is overcoming much of Spain). Since the heavily ploughed surface is rough, a few months before the olives are ripe (when they are most likely to fall), a circular space under the tree is smoothed with rakes, or by a battery of truck tires dragged by a tractor, to make it easier to collect them manually. This is called hacer el suelo - preparing the ground.

The harvests of early 1996 and early 1997 have provided all of us with dramatic examples of the effects of drought, in the case of the former, and excessive rainfall, in the case of the latter. At the end of an accumulative sequía which had lasted over 15 years - with as little as 1/3 of the minimum necessary annual rainfall total of 600 cubic metres - only 1/5 of the olive trees, by mid-December, were bearing any olives at all, and even these were so tiny that they didn't seem to be worth picking. Then the rain began, and although the barren trees remained barren, the existing olives swelled up - one could almost see it happening from one day to the other - to a quite respectable size by harvesting time, so that the net result was not the total disaster which had been expected. Nevertheless, the vastly reduced amount of oil which went on the market sent prices soaring everywhere.

In the meantime, the rain continued through the year, bringing Spain's chronic drought situation to a spectacular end - and allowing nature to make one its amazing comebacks. By the end of 1996, the trees were burgeoning with more olives than had ever been seen before, almost as large as small plums, auguring the "harvest of the century". But one should never count one's olives before they are in the mill. The rains of December were even heavier than the year before, and stretched on through January, making it impossible for the pickers to enter the fields. Since the earth is kept raw and without grass covering, the men and women would have sunk to their knees in mud, and even on the few fine days, when the picking continued, the tractors were unable to pick up the sacks of fruit, making it necessary to carry them out by hand.

Symmetry of the Andalucian Olive Groves
What's in an olive?

The economic losses were enormous, with the rain throwing half the olives onto the ground, where the fruit fermented and - even worse - sunk into the mud. Most of the harvest was unsuitable for the manufacture of "virgin" oil - the level of acidity was intolerably high and the olives had to be sold, at a much lower price, to a refinery, to produce aceite refinado. But the rain, although destructive in the short term, is money in the bank: even if, after such a deluge, it were to definitively stop, the ground would be saturated with enough moisture to guarantee bumper crops - and to keep our wells overflowing - for the next 3 or 4 years.

When the weather turns nasty in wintertime, at 2,500 feet above sea level, working from dawn to lunch (three o'clock) in the mud and wind can be arduous, and to make their lot more bearable the fun-loving Andalucians have developed a curious tradition of chatting and joking - diciendo tonterías - which, like so much else in their way of doing things, is much less spontaneous than one might think. Some of the more loquacious and entertaining individuals are especially sought after when the teams are composed, because they keep spirits up and make the work go faster...