Olive You, Spain

We’ve taken quite a few field trips over Andalucía (organized by the wonderful IES!), and every bus ride I am surprised by the expanse of olive trees in the rocky terrain.  The groves actually look quite bizarre at first, as though a polka-dot blanket is spread over the mountainsides.  The trees are planted in perfect lines, so as you drive by the rows seem to warp out continuously.  And, just when you think you’ve reached the end of the grove, another one begins.

the never ending waves of olives

However, I come from a family with a permanent ban on olives.  We order ‘everything’ pizzas without the olives.  I’ve grown up avoiding the salty snacks at all costs; I even considered not going abroad to Spain just to dodge them (okay just kidding).   Because olives are served with a lot of meals/tapas in Granada, I found myself slowly conditioning my taste buds.  And now, I don’t know how I’m going to eat dinner without them.

Spain exports almost 75% of the olives in the ENTIRE WORLD.  But…warning…you can’t just eat the olives off the trees—they’re bitter and hard before they’re processed.  Some of the olive trees in Granada are grown behind the Alhambra!

Some students from IES Granada went to an olive oil tasting this month where we got to see first hand how much work goes into preserving the freshness of olives and tweeking the flavors.  We took a 40- minute bus ride to Priego de Cordoba, a pueblo in the mountains.  After a brisk walk through the olive groves, our guide explained how his trees were handed down through his family, and that he learned how to grow olives through tradition.  He grew 3 different kinds of olives, some better for eating and others with a more consistent oil texture and flavor.  They “pick” the olives in the fall by laying out nets underneath the trees, and shaking the top branches with rakes or small machines.

We then took a bus back to our guide’s olive oil store, where he had 3 cups of olive oil laid out for everyone with pieces of green apple in between to cleanse our pallets.  At first he just asked us to smell the first cup, and it was great—almost like a ripe tomato.  Then, he asked us to sip it.  GROSS.  After we all gagged, he told us that the first olive oil had every defect—including rancid flavors that occur when olives rot sitting around before being made into oil.  The second one we smelled was average, but when we tried it the oil was spicy.  We were all grabbing our water bottles.  Our guide explained that olive oil that is able to have a depth of flavor like that—start out bitter and turn spicy—wins awards.  The key to their special oil is young olives.  Just to show us the difference, our last taste was average store bought olive oil.

The three types of oil ready for tasting…

Ever wonder what it means when you buy “extra virgin olive oil”?  That means the oil is the best of the crop—it has none of the defects!

I recommend going on an olive oil tour when you’re in Spain…it’s a great way to see the countryside, and get to know how they make one of the staples of a Mediterranean diet!