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The olive oil golden heritage in the Axarquia
The cold western wind swirls through the narrow streets of the white tinted villages while a lazy sun fights its way over the mountain tops. As the light starts to remove the stars from the night, speckles of white houses become visible between a sea of olive trees disposed as dots that fill the fields and mountain sides up to the cliff lines in the Axarquia valley.
Little by little the small villages come back to life, it is the olive harvest season. As soon as the sun is about to shine over the Maroma mountain, the streets start to fill with tractors and other vehicle noises, people dressed generally in shabby clothing, ready for the tough work in the fields, walk on the streets greeting one another, or have a coffee, or perhaps something stronger to scare the morning chill away in the local bar. Little by little the working groups are formed and vanish in different all wheel drive cars to their working places. Places where the olives will be picked to be pressed the next day in the local mill to extract a precious liquid that has a greasy texture and a peculiar mixture of fruity, bitter but sweet as well as spicy tastes, and which is commonly known as olive oil.
Little would be the same in southern Spain without the olives and the trees that produce them and flood most of the southern landscape. Spain is home to thirty seven kinds of olive trees, making it the country with most varieties in the world and also the major producer with about 54% of world’s production, far away from its nearest competitor, Italy, with a bit more than the 14% (FAO 2014).
There are archaeological records of the harvest of olive trees since the Neolithic Era. But as far as it is known, it was not until Mesopotamia that olive oil was extracted from the olive fruit. The cultivation of olive trees spread rapidly through the Middle East, becoming a key product for many cultures which used it for cosmetics, as it was the case with ancient Egypt. It also acquired a sacred status within the Jewish cultures and tribes where it was believed that oil was a God's blessing and gave richness and happiness, while the lack of it was little less than a curse.
It is thought that the Phoenicians were the key for spreading this crop that gave such appreciated fruit throughout the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greece, Italy, southern France and especially southern Spain, where it was introduced about 1,100 B.C, would be the chosen regions.
Years passed and the human settlements became villages and cities which thrived economically and socially thanks to the olive harvest and the extraction of the oil. It was so appreciated during the Roman Empire that anyone who goes to Rome should visit Monte dei Cocci. Apparently, the 35m high mountain could be a strange geographic accident, but what few may know, is that under the local vegetation that covers it, lay more than 26 million amphora used to transport olive oil to the ancient city, about 80% of them came from the south of the Iberian Peninsula.
Little could the Phoenicians imagine that, about 3,000 years after they planted the first trees, southern Spain would become such an olive oil producer. Far away from the old times, many crops have been optimized and highly mechanized. Little is left of the tedious manual work that farmers, up to not long ago, had to do. Fifty year old laborer from Riogordo, Salvador Lopez still recalls from his youth years: “We had to hit the tree branches with our wooden poles to make the fruit fall, after that, a group of women picked up the olives directly from the ground, back then, we had no nets, and all had to be picked by hand”. Others, like Salvador Cordero or his brother Antonio who exploit several olive tree fields in the same village, still remember how they had to load the mules with sacs and it took them two hours to walk their way to the village to release their cargo adding two more hours back to the “cortijo” (farm) where they lived.
The introduction of tractors, and different grades of machinery that shake the trees and make the olives fall on nets that are placed on the ground, eases notoriously the recollection. Nevertheless, in Axarquia valley you can still find the essence of what, during centuries, has been the olive harvest for oil production, in part thanks to tradition, in part due to the irregular terrain, or simply due to a long living production model that comes directly from when the Moorish dominated most of the peninsula.
In the Axarquia valley prevails the cultivation of a local variety of the Olea europea olive tree called “Verdial de Velez-Malaga”. Many of these trees have been planted for years, if not centuries, and have a considerable size. While some sit on the ground with several trunks that support the large density of fruit, leaves and branches, others were directly implanted on a local variety of wild olive tree called acebuche much before than anyone can remember. The trees grew up to have thick twisted bizarre trunks that resemble petrified monsters under the twilight of dawn or dusk. The villagers from Periana and surroundings like to call them millenarian trees, despite some experts in the matter, like Paco Lorenzo, member of the Olearum Association, prefers to be cautious saying that they are probably not that old.
The name of “Verdial” comes from the color green, verde, in Spanish. It reflects the fact that the olive fruit preserves its green color during most of the ripeness period. It is also a very valued fruit for the high yield of oil it gives, that is about ¼ of the fruits weight. The oil from this kind of olive is well appreciated for its smooth, hardly spicy, and sweet taste compared to other olive oils.
On the field, the workers that participate in the harvest repeat with every tree the same routine as if it were a mantra. First they drag and extend a few large nylon nets under the tree while others pick up olives that are lying on the ground under a nearby one. The ground olives are processed separately for another kind of oil which, despite it has no risks for human consumption, by the taste and acidity is considered not suitable for it. With the net in place, it is the moment to use a mechanic vibrator that will drop the most mature olives. During and after shaking the tree, two or three workers with carbon fiber poles in their hands hit the tree branches skillfully but with strength to collect the rest of the olives that did not fall with the vibrator. Tree after tree, day after day, for several months, this marks the routine of the laborers as well as it will mark their worked hands.
Close to dusk, the daily calm and routine of the villages is interrupted once more as the tractors loaded with olives rush to the local cooperative to unload. The narrow streets become a chaos comparable to those of the rush hour in any city. Tractors cue up in the entrance of the cooperative almost blocking the nearby streets or roads. All want to dump their cargo and see if the days work has paid off. While waiting for their turn, the courtyard becomes a swarm of people talking, shouting and laughing almost as loud as the thunderous noise created by the motors, the transportation belt and other machinery that cleans and processes the olives. This will last for a few hours before the noise vanishes with the fall of the winter night, leaving only some casual car running on the streets or perhaps some reveller cat walking along the sidewalk.
Olive oil for human consumption is commonly denominated in five main groups according European Union regulations:
As 100% pressed olive oils we find on the top the virgin extra olive oil that is considered the best quality and is the olive juice without impurities and water, characterized by its fresh taste and low acidity. The regular virgin olive oil is the next in line, it is considered a lesser quality oil due to some taste deficiencies produced by the olive quality used for its production, it also has moderate acidity. The last in line of the pressed olive oils is the lampante virgin oil, this oil is produced with the olives that have fallen to the ground before the tree was harvested or olives degraded for any other cause, it has a strong taste, sometimes of rotten olives, in the EU it is not permitted for human consumption without refining, though in some countries like Morocco it is commonly used. In the old times, before electricity arrived to the villages, this oil was used to burn on oil lamps and stoves, giving it its name, today it is mainly refined for food, industrial or the cosmetic markets.
Opposite to what it may seem, the current olive oil that is sold in many supermarkets around the word is made mainly of refined olive oil, which is usually lampante olive oil that has been refined loosing most of its taste, odor and color. To make it suitable for human consumption, a 10% to 20% of virgin oil is added. Holding the last position in the chart, we find the pomace olive oil that is made extracting the oil from the leftovers of the pressings using organic solvents and mixing it with virgin oil to improve its quality.
In the Axarquia valley the bloom of the spring flowers indicate the close ending of the olive harvest. Only those who have large fields are still picking up the last olives of the season. Little by little the current calm returns to the streets as in each house, or bar, groups of laborers and contractors gather to celebrate the end of the olive season behind a table with a dinner that is always accompanied with wine, beers and some cocktails to ease the previous hard work months.
In Periana, it is time to celebrate the Olive Oil Day on the first Sunday of April. It is not an ancient celebration, but the streets fill up with people of all ages. Locals and visitors try the newly pressed olive oil. In the square behind the church a traditional breakfast is served for everyone, and while different local music groups sing and play traditional music, a pitched battle takes place to grab a toast soaked in olive oil, some salted codfish and some beans that conform this traditional breakfast. Not far away, in a room of the local cooperative building, there is a class to introduce the visitors in the olive oil tasting, while a few streets from there, a group of cooks prepare giant paellas for any visitors willing to stand the huge cue for a dish. At lunch time it is difficult to find a spot to eat, all the terraces, bars and public benches are occupied with people until well entered the afternoon, when, little by little, locals and visitors start going home.
After the harvesting it is time for the pruning and fertilizing season of the olive trees. Only a few laborers will be needed for these new tasks, the rest will most probably survive with their earnings and the government subsidy until the almond season starts in August, or the opening of the new olive harvest season in November. Meanwhile, all look at the sky hoping for the appropriate weather needed for a great new season.
Text: Xabeir Mikel Laburu