Olives and Olive Oil, Part I
We went on a tour of an olive oil factory yesterday. I would like to share some of what we learned, at the risk of deviating from the more spiritual tenor of the blog. Of course, all of us feel that food is sacred, so maybe this information is pertinent.
Olive trees existed 40,000 years ago. They are most likely Mediterranean in origin. Over the past three centuries places in the American land mass, particularly places whose climate resembles the one in the Mediterranean, have done well cultivating olive trees.
It is thought that Crete was the first state that used olives as a source of income. The Minoan civilization may have depended on olives as their main source of cash. OK; there was no cash in those days, but trade was active and important. Eventually most of the countries bordering the Mediterranean joined in the commercial pursuit. Today Spain leads the pack in production and export, while Greece consumes more per capita than anyone else (they are second in production).
The trees are short: almost never over 7 meters tall, and usually about 4-6 meters. In the old days it used to be said that they only grew well within a short distance from the sea, but this is not true. Trees live for hundreds of years. Legend has it that Plato’s academy met at an olive grove, and that one of its trees was still bearing fruit 2,000 years later. We saw trees that were two hundred years old and were still productive.
Trees require a dry climate, but there is a catch. They need good amounts of water around March (in the Northern Hemisphere) and a small amount close to harvest time (September through the end of December, again in the Northern Hemisphere). Too much or too little will decrease the yield and the quality. Trees yield an average of 70 kilos of olives yearly, but this amount fluctuates. A tree that has a good year will likely have a smaller yield the next.
This leads to a problem: olive wood is prized, because of its strength and ability to withstand heat. But olive tree owners get yield from the tree for decades. Why would they want to tear the tree down, when it is a yearly source of sustenance? Therefore, olive wood is scarce and expensive.
Spain cultivates 700 varieties of olives. There are close to 1,000 worldwide. Each breed has its own characteristics. In broad terms, olives can be used to eat or to produce oil. Green olives (and we are speaking in general terms) are better to eat, and black olives yield more oil. There are exceptions, and some of the premium oils are derived from green olives.
There are numerous decision points along the olive’s path from tree to table. Farmers gather wisdom through generations. They are well-trained. Seemingly trivial details (such as knowing how far apart to plant new trees) are of vital importance. The most important decision: picking the ideal time to harvest a tree.
You see, all olives come from the same tree. They are green at first. As they ripen, they turn dark red, then black. That is right: a green olive is a young black olive. And trees can only be harvested once a year. The farmer must decide if this year´s green olives will be tasty, or if he would be better off waiting a few days or weeks and going for the oil.
Once the decision is made, many more steps remain before you can taste the finished product. In the next few days, we will complete this trip.
On the enclosed photos you can see the typical terrain used to grow olives. Note how dry it is. The other picture shows an olive tree with fruit. If you look carefully, you will see both red and green olives (in the same tree).