The olive oil in Spain

The olive tree is originally from the Middle Eastern Mediterranean regions, where it started to be grown for its fruit, olives, and the juice that was squeezed out of them: olive oil. The high value of this product encouraged the spread of olive plantations to every Mediterranean coast.

As a botanic species, the Olive tree for plantations (Olea europaea L.) derives from a forest variety (Olea chrysophyla Lam) which evolved via the Wild Olive tree or Oleaster (Olea oleaster L. u Olea europaea oleaster). Being a genuinely Mediterranean tree, the olive is very well adapted to difficult environmental conditions, such as arid periods and high temperatures, and though it lives in poor soil, it needs good ground aeration.

Introduction and expansion of Olive trees in Spain

The exact date of the introduction of Olive plantations in Spain is unknown, though the most widely accepted theory is that the Fenicians or Greeks were those who brought it to the peninsula; however, its cultivation only reached a certain degree of importance with the arrival of Scipio (211 b.C).

During the Roman period, olive oil from the plantations in Hispania was carried to all the western part of roman territories. Many remains of amphors bearing the Betic symbol along the Europe’s great rivers, such as the Rhine, the Rhone, the high Danube and the Garonne witness this fact.

A great part of the olive oil produced in Betica was controlled and used by the population of the city of Rome. Monte Testaccio, a hill entirely made of broken Betic amphors, perfectly recognisable by the symbol which indicated their origin, can still be visited in Rome. The amphors contained the stockpile of the imperial capital’s oil.

Mosaic

This flourishing commerce of Hispanic oil caused the expansión of olive grove cultivation along the whole valley of the Betis river (now called Guadalquivir), right up to the sides of the Sierra Morena mountains. Oil mills were placed in the middle of the plantations while amphor factories were placed alongside the rivers (Guadalquivir and Genil, mainly).

Furthermore, even though the olive tree was mainly planted in the southern part of Roman Spain, there are documents from this period which speak of its presence in the valleys of the rivers Tajo and Ebro. Its importance was crucial during the Visigoth domination as well, when important progress in Olive tree cultivation took place; what’s more, arab sources describe its abundance and extension in the whole Guadalquivir valley during the first centuries of this culture’s dominion.

The importance given to olive tree cultivation by Alonso de Herrera in his Agricultura General is testimony to the vast land area which it occupied in the first half of the XVI century. This fact seems to be confirmed by the numerous remains of olive groves which can be seen in every part of our land. The presence of isolated, ancient olive trees or randomly placed groups of trees witness the presence of old plantations.

The construction of railway lines in the XIX century induced an extension of plantations to the innermost parts of the peninsula, until finally completing the current map of distribution of olive groves in Spain. Currently, olive plantations are growing even further, especially by way of intensive watered plantations, to which advanced agricultural techniques are applied in order to achieve high yields.

Spanish Olive tree varieties

More tan 100 varieties of olive tree are grown in Spain, many of which are local and limited in their distribution. The most representative varieties, both for olive mills and for seasoning, are the following:

Picual   PICUAL: The dominant variety in Jaén. Its oil has great stability and personality, strength, fruitiness, intense sourness and clearly piquant tones. The tree is resilient, having a strong crown and great leaved area. Its leaf is widened and its fruit is elliptic.
Hojiblanca   HOJIBLANCA: Dominant variety in Malaga and Cordoba, which may be used for oil as well as eaten raw. It gives an intensely green oil, with aromas reminding ripe fruit and avocado. Its taste is enjoyable with slight tinges of bitterness and spiciness. The tree is quite resilient and covered by a dense crown. Its leaf is large, oblong, widened and partially grooved.
Arbequina   ARBEQUINA: Originally it was more planted in Catalunya, although it is currently the base of the vast majority of modern intensive and super-intensive plantations across the Spanish peninsula. It produces fruity oil, coloured from green to yellow, with soft and sweet aftertastes of apple and fresh almond. The tree is not extremely resilient, its branches short and scarcely ramified. Its leaf is grooved and wider at its tip, while its fruit is small, oval and almost symmetrical.
Cornicabra   CORNICABRA: Dominates the central area of Spain totally (Toledo, Ciudad Real and Madrid) Its oils range from greenish-yellow to golden. Its aromas are fresh and its taste is between sweet, bitter with a tinge of spiciness. The tree is quite resilient, presenting medium-length branches which hardly form sprouts. Its leaf is wide and spear-shaped while its fruit is long and curved, asymmetrical and horn-shaped on the inner surface
Lechín   LECHIN:This variety is mainly planted in the Seville and Córdoba provinces. Its oil is relatively unstable with a balanced, mild aroma and a bitter taste. The tree is resilient, its short branches produce a thick crown. Its short leaf is almost flat and its fruit is elliptic, presenting a slightly rounded rear surface.
Empeltre   EMPELTRE: This olive variety is typical of the lower Aragón province. Its juice produces oils which may range between the colours straw-yellow and aged-gold. Its taste is fruity, suggesting apples, and its taste is mild and sweet. The tree is resilient with straight branches and somewhat warped, wide leaves. The fruit is asymmetrical and broad.
Blanqueta   BLANQUETA: This variety is mainly grown in Alicante and south of Valencia. Its oil is leave-green and its aroma gives off a whiff of green tomato. To the taste it appears spicy and slightly bitter. The tree is not very resilient and its branches are short. Its leaves are short and spear-shaped and its oval fruit is somewhat asymmetrical.
Cacereña   CACEREÑA: Also called Manzanilla cacereña for its widespread presence in the Cáceres province. It is a variety with double use which is highly valued for dressings, both when white and when black, due to the quality of its pulp. The tree is not very resilient, flowering early and giving fruit before other varieties. Its leaves are medium-length and flat and its fruit is sphere-shaped, though slightly asymmetrical.
    CARRASQUEÑA: This is a sub-variety of the manzanilla variety known by this name in Extremadura.
    MANZANILLA: This variety is grown in the Seville province, mainly around the capital. The tree isn’t strong, its crown hardly thick. The leaves are short and thick and its fruit is oval. It is mainly used for dressings.
    GORDAL: Both its origin and use are connected with the Seville province. The tree is quite strong with thick, long branches. Its leaf is very straight and pointed and its fruit is large, heart-shaped and asymmetrical. It’s mainly used for dressings.

Production and marketing

Spain is the largest producer of olive oil and olives worldwide, boasting the largest olive grove surface as well as number of olive trees. In recent years Spanish olive oil production has covered almost 50% of global production (IOOC) and 25% of global olive production.

Map of olive trees in Spain

Olive plantations are second only to Cereals for land area covered. Andalucia represents 60%.

In addition to their huge land area coverage, olive tree plantations and their products, olive oil and olives, represent one of the leading sectors in the Spanish food industry, for their economic, social, environmental value, as well as their importance for public health.

The main set of data to get a picture of the dimensions of Spanish Olive plantations are the following:

    • Olive plantation land surface coverage: 2.584.564 hectares
  • Olives for the mill: 2.439.660 hectares
  • “Table” olives: 77.734 hectares
  • Olives both for mill and “table”: 67.170 hectares
  • Rain-fed plantations: 1.853.539 hectares
  • Drip irrigation plantations: 731.025 hectares
    • Number of olive trees: 282.696.000
  • For the mill: 264.321.000
  • “Table” olives: 18.375.000