Andalusian olives

Andalusia - olive orchards galore!
Andalusian olives

I live in Andalusia. Olives are part of the life here. Two hundred meters from me is an olive orchard. I regularly run through a mile of olive orchard before I crest a rise and drop into fields where sunflowers are produced. I am unlucky in the sense that the run is basically downhill, so the second half of the run is uphill and depending upon my condition, sometimes that is important. But if I put my mind on other things, I climb the hills, arriving home and many times finish with a jump in the pool to cool off.

My mind ranges when I run. Many times I see the workers that take care of the olive orchard. Being from farm country in the US, I am always amazed at the quality of tractors that are used in the orchards. They are usually new John Deere tractors with four wheel drive. I grew up in country where 1 out of 10 tractors were new. But, the people who prune and harvest are usually independently contracted individuals, and they are poor for sure. A couple of harvests ago, Romanian pickers set up a camp about 400 meters from our house. They made the simplest camp. Just tents and ropes where they dried their clothes (very colorful). They had a simple pit for cooking outdoors, shared by all.

My neighbor told me to barracade the house because for sure they would break in and steal everything we had that was not nailed down. My neighbor, Antonio, is a little old school. Well meaning but sometimes he sees things differently. Once when I dug out a block of concrete at the entrance to our street, which is a rise, he said somebody stole the gate lock. I told him I had dug out the concrete block because I was afraid that my car would scrape the block on the rise, and cause harm to the undercarriage of my car. I actually pushed the concrete block off to the side and the gate lock was still in it, sitting there. When I explained this to him, he said oh. It really had no value at all and was a bunch of work to dig out, but he still thought somebody had stolen it.

The only time I saw the Romanian pickers that year is when they were walking to and from the local grocery store. I always said hi. A couple of times, I saw friendly, brown, muscular men along the side of the road drinking Cruz Campo beer. I said hi and they said hi. I can imagine that after working all day picking olives from trees, a cold beer at the end of the day probably tastes pretty good. They always looked like nice enough people.

On my runs during the harvest season, I also see the local “olive harvestors”. From what I can discern there is a tradition of making olive mixtures among the retired gentlemen of Spain. Of course, most of the retired gentlemen of Spain do not have a orchard to harvest olives from so many enter the orchards at odd times to pick a sack or two of olives. Somehow, my schedule cooresponds with theirs and I see old men sneaking around trees, filling bags with a few olives. I wave hi and run by. I don’t think anybody cares. There is only so many of the old men left. But maybe it is generational, and Spaniards don’t begin making their own olives until they turn 60. It may be an unending cyle. I know one thing, … there is a lot of good olives to eat in Spain, each with their own “special” concoction.

Another important olive orchard factor about where I live is that I purchase olive tree wood for firewood. Olive tree wood smells great stacked up, burns a long time and is economical.  I buy about 3000 kg of olive wood for roughly $400, which is maybe about 2 cords? and this heats the house for the winter. We burn wood 24/7 in our chimney insert. Our wood stove removes the humidity from the air in our home and makes the place livable. The olive wood is wonderful. It burns slow with a good energetic release. I buy wood from a local guy (Geronimo), who is really simpatico. Geronimo is a hard working guy that has his own olive orchard and also makes arrangement to cut wood out of the large olive orchard owners. Just a good old Spanish boy of about 55 years old. A real pleasure to visit with.

A nice combination - horses, beer and olives!
A nice combination – horses, beer and olives!

I visit factories that produce hand painted Spanish pottery regularly. I usually plug in my Ipad and listen to podcasts on my drives. In the fall though, I always try to open my car windows as much as possible. I drive through large stretches of olive orchards and the smells that circulate with the fall, ground moisture and harvesting aromas create wonderful smells. I love driving past “molinos” which are the mills where olives are separated, crushes and olive oil is made. In many pueblos there are associations where all the small property owners bring their olives to be milled. Tractors, wagons, jeeps and mixtures of the three can be seen trucking their olives to the mill. If you stop at a gas station, you will probably encounter a small property land owner filling 2 or 3 ten liter cans to sustain their harvesting equipment. Time grinds back at least 30 years on these drives through the country.

Recently, I have begun visiting molinos and doing a bit of research about olive oil. I would like to offer a special virgin olive oil for sale under the Cactus Canyon Ceramics or GringoCool brand.  I am always amazed at the marketing plan of the molinos.  So much depends upon separating one olive oil from another for marketing purposes, and most of the mills I have visited seem to be clueless (marketing is hard work). They make a top rate product and have a wonderful, colorful history, but they have no capacity to communicate the quality and tradition of their particular olive oil.  It is a work from scratch to get the guys to tell their story.

I tease Spaniards with the idea that they are producing the majority of the olive oil in the world and other countries are marketing it. I tell them that Spanish olive oil is sold in bulk 50 gallon barrels to Italy for peanuts, and the Italians bottle it in ¼ litre bottles, put a pretty label, and then sell it for the same price as the 50 gallon barrel.  I recently viewed an animated presentation at the New York Times called “Extra Virgin Suicide – The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil” by Nicholas Blechman.  It is short and sweet with a strong message that a lot of olive oil is arriving to the States altered and of a poorer quality.  The truth is that I have had olive oil in the States, and it doesn’t come close to the tastes of the typical Andalusian product.  I think things are changing slowly though.

Spain is the largest producer of olives and olive oil in the world.   The 2014 crop was a bumper crop.  This year, the harvest in Andalusia has been hit hard by high temperatures and little rain from late spring on.

Below is a table from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that shows some older data.  There are many sources of data, but all of them confirm that Spain is the leader in the production of olives and olive oil, and Andalusia is the heart of olive production.

World leaders in the production of olive oil.
World leaders in the production of olive oil.

Comments are almost always welcome.  Thanks for reading!

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