Olives are one of the earth’s finest fruits but it looks like the industry is having rocky times – in Andalucia at least. Down in the Subbética, a mountainous enclave where I have just spent a fortnight at my house, this year’s harvest has been dire. On top of that, with the crisis (aka recession) the olive mills are not paying up, leaving farmers bereft. It’s said that production has dropped 62% over this winter season – though admittedly that’s in contrast to last year’s bumper harvest. Allegedly it is the worst harvest since 1999.
At my village which exists entirely on this traditional industry, it therefore seemed odd to see jeeps with trailers piled high with juicy looking black olives (the green ones having being picked months ago – destined for table olives), standing in long lines at the mills for the olives to be stripped from twigs and leaves. Then, out in the olive groves on a rare sunny day, I watched farmers labouring with their Moroccan seasonal workers to gather in as much as possible before the forecast rain arrived.
And when it came, it wasn’t just rain, it was snow! Older men said they had never seen anything like it, certainly not the 10 cm or so (5 – 6 “) that fell in an hour and a half. That morning I opened the shutter to a blast of white light – then saw the soft white world of drooping olive trees as in this pic. Not quite the usual dry hot sierra.
But, optimistic as ever, because they are that at least, locals said the relentless rain of the past two months plus the snow augured well for this coming year’s olives. And again, these canny farmers know only too well that a shortage of stock means a rise in prices. Win win? Not exactly. The olive oil industry is actually highly complex, with farmers holding back their produce as prices rise – or fall. It’s on a par with stocks and shares.
Some have several thousand trees, others just a few hundred. They work hard and play hard – down at the local bars: cards, dominoes and TV football with beer or local fino. Then it’s back to the grind in the groves. “Sunday is when it rains” one of them told me.
In the meantime the huge gap in olive stocks is being filled by boatloads of oil from Tunisia – source of fruity, pungent oil, much stronger than the more refined andaluz variety. I remember buying it at the Tunis market straight from a local producer who filled up an old water bottle with the viscous green liquid for a few dirham. It’s a strange old world when it seems this quintessential Mediterranean plant, the basis of that famous diet, is now taking root in countries like Pakistan and China.
There are over 750 million olive trees in Spain, each one producing an average of 4 – 5 litres of oil (though much depends on farming techniques, age of tree and weather); Andalucia is home to 70 million of them, a number which has multiplied over the last century. For more detailed information read this 2017 application for UNESCO World Heritage recognition, outlining the nuts and bolts of this incredible heritage.
Spain, the global leader (producing nearly half the world’s olive oil. followed by Italy and Greece) is now suffering from climate change. Although olive-trees thrive on dry soil, the current lack of water (ironic, in view of the torrential kick-off to 2013) plus soaring temperatures are taking their toll. How much longer can these divine little fruits survive? Southern China, on the other hand, with vast tracts of land, loads of water and cheap labour is gunning for greatness, already with nearly 40 million trees planted – nothing like Spain’s but we know how fast those Chinese work.
Spain’s olives go back a long way, over 3000 years, when they were brought from the Middle East by the Phoenicians, later to be much expanded by the Romans and subsequently by the Moors. They are thus a fantastic symbol of Spanish history, enmeshed with the Middle East and ancient Rome. Even the Spanish word for oil (aceite) comes from the Arabic equivalent, zeit, What a tragedy it would be if those magnificent groves became redundant.
If you’re interested in the Middle Eastern olive industry, notably the West Bank, read my post on the Palestinian olive harvest