About Olive


The History of the Olive


Olive Varieties


Olive Varieties for Planting in the Home Garden & Landscape


The Olive Harvest


Olive Facts, Selection & Storage


Olive Tree Cultivation


Olive-When to Pick


Olive Recipes


Olive from Different Countries


Black Olives


Green Olives

About Olive

The Olive is the fruit of the Olive tree (Olea europaea) and is a major component of the agriculture and gastronomy along the Mediterranean both in Europe and North Africa, as well as in the Middle East.

Food, cooking medium, lamp fuel, preservative, medicine, cure, laxative, aphrodisiac, cosmetic, unguent, magic potion ingredient and religious unction - since time immemorial, olives have been used for all these purposes, especially amongst Mediterranean cultures: The Bible, the Torah and the Koran are all full of references to the olive.

It is thought that cultivation of the native wild tree began somewhere in the Near East some 6000 years ago. Olive cultivation and oil extraction was brought to Iberia by the Phoenicians around 1050 BCE, and again by the Greeks between 600-700 BCE, but it was undoubtedly the Romans who would turn Iberian oil into a veritable industry, though it seems that the Iberian tribes looked on this new and pungent oil with some suspicion, preferring their good old lard. The importance of Iberian oil to the Empire was huge. Spanish oil amphorae have been found in all Roman provinces, though most was of course was destined to Rome itself. Mount Testaccio in the city is a testament to the size of the trade. This artificial hill is made up of 40 million amphorae discarded during the first 250 years of the Common Era, most of which are from the Iberian Peninsula. Hadrian even had a coin struck bearing the picture of an olive branch and the inscription "Hispania".

While the fall of the Roman Empire led to the decline of olive production in the rest of Europe, Southern Spain was to see an increase in cultivation with the arrival of the Arabs, who brought with them new varieties and production techniques.

The two distinct historical origins of olive production in Iberia - Roman and Arabic - are also the sources of the two names for olive in Spanish: oliva and aceituna: the former is from the Latin oleum (from the Greek elaia) and also gives us olivo [olive tree], while the latter is from the Arabic al-zait (from the Aramaic zatya), meaning 'olive juice', which also gives us the Spanish words aceite [oil], and acebuche [wild olive tree]. The preferred term for the fruit is probably aceituna. Olive oil is called aceite de oliva (half Latin, half Arabic) in Spanish, to distinguish it from the petroleum engine lubricant, but oli suffices in Catalonia.

The different language influences and the much lower influence of Arabic on the other Peninsular and neighbouring languages can be seen in this (incomplete) table.




Olive Tree






Aotoun, Azeituna




Aceituna(s), Oliva(s)

Aceite de Oliva

Olivo, Acebucho






Oliva (es)







Portuguese (Thanks to Nuno Vilaça)

Azeitona(s) Azeite Oliveira(s)



Huile d'olive


With the culmination of the Reconquista and the rise of Catholic fundamentalism at the time of the Catholic Monarchs, pork came to be seen as a sure sign of faith in a land of half- and falsely-converted Moriscos and Jews, and so was the dominant use of lard {manteca} in detriment to olive oil, which began to be associated with plebes, peasants and people with suspicious blood lineages. As the Galician writer and gastronome, Julio Cambra put it, 'Spanish cooking overflows with garlic and religious prejudices".

Olive oil did not, however, lose its reputation as an efficacious health tonic. In the south and along the coast, olive oil continued as the dominant fat, yet it wasn't until the late 19th century that Spanish cookery writers, notably Angel Muro in 'El Practicón', began to extol its virtues over lard.

In the 1960's, the Spanish State, hungry for dollars, started to export high-price olive oil to the USA in exchange for cheap American soya bean oil. State propaganda managed to convince much of the population of the culinary and dietary superiority of soya, no doubt aided by olive oil's backward image of rural poverty in counterpoint to the shining American utopia, projected by soya oil adverts: olives, oil and bread had been survival rations for many Andalusian peasants in the years of hunger following the Civil War. Consequently, millions of hectares of ancient olive groves were ripped up and replaced by water-guzzling soya bean, and later sunflower crops. Many families simply stopped using olive oil as a cooking fat.

By the late seventies, production had begun to recover, thanks to mounting medical and dietary evidence of its relative benefits, and rising cultural pride in such a talisman of the Mediterranean, though even now the industry has yet to recover from the seventies setback, when Italian producers were able to take advantage of Spain's weakness and win foreign markets. To this day, Spain exports millions of tons of olive oil to Italy, where a label in Italian is stuck on a nice bottle, which is then re-exported to the North for twice the price. However, the situation is rapidly changing: production techniques have been significantly improved and the best regions are all now protected by the 'Denominación de Origen' system. Spanish oil now enjoys a worldwide reputation for quality.

Spain is by some way the country with the highest number of olive trees (more than 300 million), and is nowadays the world's leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter. Of the 2.1 million hectares (5.19 million acres) of olive groves, 92% are dedicated to olive oil production. The average annual production varies due to the cyclical nature of the harvest, but typically runs between 600,000 and 1,000,000 metric tons, only 20% of which is exported. About 80% of the crop is concentrated in Andalusia, the biggest olive growing area on the planet.

Olive plantations in Jaen, home to 70% of Spanish production.

In Andalusia, the most important olive oil producing areas are in the province of Jaén, where the main olive type is Picual, and other authorised varieties include Verdala, Real, and Manzanilla de Jaén, and in the province of Córdoba, where the authorised DO olive varieties include Picuda (a.k.a. Carrasqueña de Córdoba), Picual, Lechín, Chorrío, Pajarero, and Hojiblanco. DO certified Andaluz olive oils tend to be full bodied and tasty; class "A" oils have a maximum acidity of 0.4%, while class "B" oils have up to 1% acidity.

Catalonia also produces olive oil, which tends to be on the lighter side. The principal cultivation and production areas are Les Garrigues, in the province of Lleida, and Siurana, very nearby, in the province of Tarragona, where the Arbequina variety is the main olive grown, but where other DO authorised varieties include Real [Royal], Verdiel and Morrut olives.

Olive trees are slow growing, traditionally bearing fruit after fifteen years, though modern production techniques have brought maturity down to five (hence the lag in time it took to recover from the 1960-70's uprooting of the groves). A tree is thought to reach maximum productivity after 40 years, and after 140 begins to decline, though thousand-year-old trees can and do still bear rich loads. Olive tree age is often exaggerated though Lo Parot in Horta de Sant Joan in Tarragona is certainly between 1,000-1,500 years old. It would have been planted during Visigoth or Arab times.

Olives are gathered from late November to the end of March, depending on the area and the year's weather. Harvesting is done by hand, or with a stick to shake the fruit onto tarpaulins arranged around the tree (it is sometimes done with a mechanical tree shaker, though this can damage a tree).

Between four and eleven kilos of olives are needed to make one kilo of oil. This is done by grinding the olives whole and then pressing the resultant mulch or 'pomice'. Each olive releases a few droplets of oil. This mix of pulp, stone, water and oil is then spun centrifugally, bringing to the surface aceite flor, which is then further treated by decanting and filtering to rid it of water and impurities.

Olive oil should be consumed within 12 months of bottling and can begin to go rancid after 15 months. Store in a dry place out of sunlight.

Spanish olive oil comes in four distinct classes, defined by national health regulations:

(1) Aceite de Oliva Virgen [Virgin Olive Oil], a completely natural product. Within the Virgin grade, there are 3 recognized quality levels:

  • Extra (the most flavoursome, not exceeding 1% acidity);
  • Corriente [Average] (not exceeding 3.3% acidity); and
  • Lampante [Very Strong] (above 3.3% acidity).

(2) Aceite de Oliva Refinado [Refined Olive Oil], obtained by refining lampante virgin oil; it is perfectly acceptable, but does not have the full taste of virgin olive oil. Ideal for cooking

(3) Aceite de Oliva [Regular Olive Oil], a blend of both refined and virgin olive oil.

(4) Aceite de Orujo/Marc/Pomace [Pomace Oil], made from olive oil pressings {pomace/marc/orujo}; the least expensive type, with no real taste. Don't bother buying.

The best by far is virgin extra, which is first press oil with all of its vitamins still intact. In Spain, it must have a minimum acidity of 0.2 and a maximum of 1.0. The acidity gauge is a measure of the content of free fatty acids. 1 grade of this acid equals 1 gram of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil. The shorter the time the oil spends between harvesting and pressing, the lower the acidity, though within the accepted range a higher acidity is by no means a sign of an inferior oil. It's just a question of taste. Virgin and Virgin Corriente are poorer oils suitable for cooking with a higher acidic content (no more than 2º and 3.3º, respectively). Lamparte (more than 3.3º) is generally only used for industrial deep-frying purposes.

About Olive Cultivation

Cultivation of the olive is an important part of the Mediterranean economy. Olive cultivation has been moving westward over the last three millennia, and today Spain is the world's largest producer of olives (36%) followed by Italy (25%)[7] and Greece (18%), and world production has crossed 2.5 mn tons.

The olive has also been planted in other regions such as Chile and Australia, but the primary production is almost entirely around the Mediterranean.

Olive Tree Description

Growth Habits: The olive is an evergreen tree growing to 50 ft. in height with a spread of about 30 ft. The tree can be kept to about 20 ft. with regular pruning. The graceful, billowing appearance of the olive tree can be rather attractive. In an all-green garden its grayish foliage serves as an interesting accent. The attractive, gnarled branching pattern is also quite distinctive. Olives are long-lived with a life expectancy of 500 years. The trees are also tenacious, easily sprouting back even when chopped to the ground.

Foliage: The olive's feather-shaped leaves grow opposite one another. Their skin is rich in tannin, giving the mature leaf its gray-green appearance. The leaves are replaced every two or three years, leaf-fall usually occurring at the same time new growth appears in the spring.

Flowers: The small, fragrant, cream-colored olive flowers are largely hidden by the evergreen leaves and grow on a long stem arising from the leaf axils. The olive produces two kinds of flowers: a perfect flower containing both male and female parts, and a staminate flower with stamens only. The flowers are largely wind pollinated with most olive varieties being self-pollinating, although fruit set is usually improved by cross pollination with other varieties. There are self-incompatible varieties that do not set fruit without other varieties nearby, and there are varieties that are incompatible with certain others. Incompatibility can also occur for environmental reasons such as high temperatures.

Fruit: The olive fruit is a green drupe, becoming generally blackish-purple when fully ripe. A few varieties are green when ripe and some turn a shade of copper brown. The cultivars vary considerably in size, shape, oil-content and flavor. The shapes range from almost round to oval or elongated with pointed ends. Raw olives contain an alkaloid that makes them bitter and unpalatable. A few varieties are sweet enough to be eaten after sun drying. Thinning the crop will give larger fruit size. This should be done as soon as possible after fruit set. Thin until remaining fruit average about 2 or 3 per foot of twig. The trees reach bearing age in about 4 years.


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