Olive Oil: The Quest for Perfection

Spain Gourmetour  Madrid, 2005, 1,800 words; adapted extracts  

Commissioned as a brief history of Spanish olive oil since 1985, this piece grew into a homage to the olive-oil making community in Spain.

Also see: The New Varietals / Olive Oil: Art, Craft, Science / The Gold And Green Mosaic

Twenty years is not so long in the life of an olive tree. "Maybe it’s eight to ten years of a human life," reckons Francisco Núñez de Prado. His family has been making extra-virgin oil in Cordoba’s rolling hills for two centuries.

In those first twenty years of life a young olive plant will grow from a knee-high stripling into an orchard tree bearing shiny, ripe fruit - "the perfect capsule", as poet Pablo Neruda described it - and it will reveal its personality through its fruit juice, from which its oil is drawn. Grassy or fruity, buttery or earthy, pungent, lemony or smoky; it may have one of many different characters.

Grassy or fruity, buttery or earthy, pungent, lemony or smoky, olive oil may have one of many subtly different characters.


But, aged twenty, an olive tree is only just reaching maturity. For another sixty or hundred years at the very least it will give a full crop. The fruit-producing trees on the Núnez de Prado estate, for example, are up to two centuries old and they are young by comparison with spidery-branched trees still standing in Jaen, Aragon and Catalonia, which give hundreds of kilos of fruit each harvest after two thousand years of life.

Measured in terms of our own lives, though, twenty years have proved long enough for a revolution to take place in Spain’s olive groves. Quietly, but in earnest, from the mid-1980s, the olive farmers have been grooming their groves with new care. Abandoned groves have been revived and some 60 million olive trees have been planted, bringing the total area to some 2.4 million hectares - near 6 million acres - the largest single expanse worldwide. Bumper years come and go, but the good years are vertiginous. In 2003, a record year, the harvest added up to a cool 835,000 Tm of extra-virgin and virgin olive oil, over 40% of the world's production.


More important than quantity, though, has been the quest for perfection. Luis Rallo, Professor of Agricultural Engineering at Cordoba University, pinpoints new technology as the key trigger for change. Until the 1980s the slowness of traditional pressing equipment meant that ripe olives, picked at the height of the harvest, could end up queueing in large heaps outside the mills for days.

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