IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
By Nick Lloyd - Home - Contact




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)






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".

If you want to give someone an olive tree, browse through these plant gifts and find the perfect gift for any occasion.

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.

Denominaciones de Origen in Spain

1- Aceite de La Rioja
2- Les Garrigues
3- Aceite del Bajo Aragón
4- Siurana
5- Aceite de Terra Alta
6- Aceite del Baix Ebre-Montsià
7- Aceite de Mallorca
8- Gata-Hurdes
9- Montes de Toledo
10- Aceite Monterrubio


11- Sierra de Segura
12- Sierra de Cazorla
13- Sierra Mágina
14- Baena
15- Priego de Córdoba
16- Montes de Granada
17- Poniente de Granada
18- Sierra de Cádiz
19- Estepa
20- Antequera

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.

lo parot

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.

Nick Lloyd

Frances Barrett's olive asides

A shallow ceramic bowl of olives will appear almost automatically on most Spanish bar counters, restaurant tables etc. as soon as you arrive. They are usually delicious. The received wisdom is that the best Spanish olives are green, while the best black olives are Greek, but I have had good Spanish olives ranging in colour from deepest ebony to red or yellow.

There are reputedly some 250 types and regional varieties of olives in Spain, and it would be impossible to list all their different names here. The most "typical" Spanish olives are probably the classic green olives originally from Manzanillas [little apples], a town in Andalusia also famous for its sherry. Other well-known types include the Gordales, as big as quails' eggs; the Lechines, so-called for their whitish pulp; and the strong Cornicabras, which are natural green and taper at the ends. The tasty little violet-green ones are called Arbequinas The small green olives from the Ampurdan region in northern Catalonia are superb, as are Verdiales, from Badajoz. Darker varieties include Negra aragonesa or empeltre olives from the North-east, which are brownish-black and bitter.

I love aceitunas aliñadas [flavoured or pickled olives] from Seville, usually mixed with curtidos [pickled gherkins, dills, baby onions, and sometimes miniature corncobs]. People say the deshuesadas ["boneless", i.e. pitted, with the stone removed] ones have less flavour, but I much prefer them this way in a sandwich, on a pizza, or even in a salad. Do you ever wonder how they take the stones out of so many olives on an industrial scale? When they are rellenas / stuffed, the filling is usually either anchovy or red pepper; I personally prefer the latter. Machacadas / crushed, they can be scattered over dishes and also make a delicious paste to spread on bread.

However, the most important function of the olive in modern Spain is as a source of oil. Apart from its ubiquitous use in Spanish cooking, olive oil is also used copiously on salads and as a lubricant to bread, on its own, or with salt, fresh garlic, or in the Catalan style with tomato.

Personally, I've long used extra virgin olive oil for dressing salads etc. and refined olive oil, which can be heated to higher temperatures, for cooking. Economic considerations have occasionally forced me to buy regular aceite de oliva or even aceite de girasol [rape or sunflower oil, also mostly produced in Spain], and certain oriental dishes are best cooked with peanut oil or soya oil. I still prefer butter, ideally Irish Kerrygold, as a spread and for cooking certain items such as fried eggs. My Argentinian flatmate Esteban has recently become a great enthusiast of ghee, purified butter ideal for frying at very hot temperatures, but not really for deep-frying. It's made in Ireland for the Asian market and only sold here in Pakistani and Indian stores. Something many people don't realize is that a lot of food in Catalonia and northern parts of the peninsula has traditionally always been cooked in lard rather than olive oil, and some still is. There is nothing actually wrong with this, but it does not have the health advantages of olive oil in regard to cholesterol etc, and tends to taste quite heavy.

Spanish TV cookery shows are exported to Latin America, where the audience apparently gasps in awe at the amounts of olive oil casually sprinkled and thrown around on the kitchen set.

The Italian custom of suspending herbs in olive oil is not widespread in Catalonia outside pizzerias. However, many Castilian-style bars & restaurants preserve cheese in olive oil with herbs, and the result is delicious.

There have been several scare stories over the years involving Spanish olive oil. The worst of these was the colza scandal in the early 1980s, when many people died or were blinded, crippled or otherwise disabled for life as a result of using so-called aceite de colza, oil sold door-to-door in poor quarters of Madrid and other cities. Upon parliamentary investigation, this oil was found to be mixed with petroleum. I have heard it said that this finding was itself a cover-up for an even worse scandal involving pesticides sprayed on Spanish tomatoes, but I know no more than the next person in the street, which is that government compensation for the victims was disgracefully slow in forthcoming. A more recent scandal was the rumour that Spanish olive oil is carcinogenic. This is drivel, except insofar as one element of pomace olive oil might have certain side effects. However, pomace olive oil is clearly labelled as such, or as "aceite de orujo". There's no problem with quality olive oils. What both these scandals illustrate is that the Spanish government is clumsy and heavy-handed in dealing with such issues.

Olive oil has various medicinal applications. Drunk straight in small doses, it helps relieve constipation. Earache can be soothed inserting cotton wool, doused in olive oil, into the offending orifice. Rubbed into your hair, olive oil prevents dandruff, and mixed with vinegar, kills nits and lice. Warm olive oil can usefully be rubbed on sprained ankles and the like. Olive oil is also widely regarded as having aphrodisiac qualities.

I once read a marvellous story about Kubla Khan, the great Mongol Emperor of China. Apparently this mighty monarch was intrigued by certain aspects of Christianity, and at one point demanded that travellers from the west should bring him some of the sacred oil used to illuminate the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was reputed to have magical healing properties. It is not known if this wish was ever fulfilled, but when William Dalrymple, the erudite young British author of The Road to Xanadu, visited the ancient church to investigate, he found an elderly Irish Franciscan comfortably filling the lamps in Jesus Christ's tomb with ordinary cooking oil, and was assured that this had been the practice since time immemorial.

Experimental energy stations burning aceite de orujo to generate electricity, like turf in Ireland, are now so advanced that they are expected to start supplying the national electric grid in the near future, reducing Spain's dependence on foreign oil, hydro-electric dams and perhaps even atomic energy. However, most informed opinion holds that Spanish energy requirements will in future be met by wind farms and solar panels.