Author: Raquel Castillo/©ICEX
Small but symbolic, table olives have been part of everyday life in Spain since ancient times. This gastronomic delicacy comes in a tremendous range of styles and represents a key sector within the Spanish agricultural and food industry. Unsurprisingly, Spain is the world's leading table olive producer, exporting this healthy, tasty, authentic food to more than 150 countries.
It is a common practice in bars, restaurants and, of course, Spanish homes to serve a tapa with a drink, and chances are that, wherever you are, the tapa will be a little dish of olives. Such an essential part of Spanish daily life spread beyond Spanish frontiers many years ago, turning olives into an important commercial product. Whether green or black, pitted or stuffed, in brine or seasoned, Spanish olives have been making a name for themselves all over the world for decades, and today Spain in the global leader in both production and exports.
Olives have always been popular in Spain. There are so many ways of preparing them and so many different seasonings that every production area claims to have the best. There are almost 300 varieties of olives, many of them stemming from a single type that has adapted to different growing conditions or is the result of grafting, and all of them are known by different names. Hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, olives already formed part of the Spanish and Mediterranean cultural heritage.
Essence of the Mediterranean
Everything begins with the olive tree, which is a member of the Oleaceae family, one that comprises 30 genera and 600 species. The cultivated olive belongs to the Olea europaea, the European species that has led to the multiple varieties existing throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Its origin lies in the wild olive, or oleaster, a prickly bush with small fruits that grew naturally in Asia Minor. It was reputedly during the Copper Age that a variety growing large, fleshy fruits was selected in the Near East from a hybrid between African and Oriental olives, and this was eventually to become what is known today as the cultivated olive.
Then olives spread west into Europe from Mesopotamia. The Phoenicians took them to the Greek islands and to the Hellenic Peninsula. From there they moved into Italy and, from the 6th BC century on, into the whole Mediterranean area, including Tripoli and Tunisia. With the Roman Empire they were brought to the Iberian Peninsula, where they were further developed by the Arabs. Being a Mediterranean tree, the olive has adapted well to severe weather conditions such as drought and extreme temperatures, and its bearing and yield are closely tied to external conditions. Above all it needs plenty of sunlight.
Technology and Tradition
In just a short period, the Spanish olive industry has seen a spectacular transformation. Not only is it the world leader in the production and export of table olives, but it also leads in the research and development of equipment used in the production process. The Instituto de la Grasa (The Fat Institute) in Seville (Andalusia), part of the Spanish National Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), was set up by the Spanish government more than 50 years ago and has a division that works exclusively with table olives-the Department of Food Biotechnology, with a staff of more than 20 chemists, biologists and pharmacists. The Fat Institute has such authority that it actively collaborated with the International Olive Council (IOC) on drafting the trade standard applying to table olives.
According to the IOC, aceituna de mesa (table olive) is the product "prepared from the wholesome fruits from varieties of the cultivated olive tree (Olea europaea sativa) that are chosen for their production of olives whose volume, shape, flesh-to-pit ratio, taste, firmness and ease of detachment from the pit make them particularly suitable for processing".
The fruit starts out green but changes to a purplish or black color as it ripens. The moisture content decreases and the oil content increases as the fruit ripens, depending on the variety. But green olives have a special characteristic in that they cannot be eaten straight from the tree because not only are they very hard but they are also extremely bitter. The bitterness comes from the oleuropein, a substance that isn't toxic but is unpleasant to eat.
This is why table olives must undergo a set of processes that includes washing them directly in soft water and soaking them in brine which allows for fermentation, allowing the fruit's sugars to be transformed into lactic acid, giving rise not only to a product that will keep well but also one that has excellent gastronomic qualities.
Not all types of olives react to processing in the same way. The varieties traditionally considered to be the best are Manzanilla and Gordal from the Seville area and, together with Hojiblanca, they are the most important commercially. All of these are mostly grown in Andalusia, in southern Spain. Other important varieties for processing as table olives, such as Manzanilla Cacereña and Carrasqueña, generally come from Extremadura in southwest Spain. Following these at a distance come Verdial, Arbequina, Empeltre, Moruna, etc., many of them being processed mostly for local consumption.
Preparations and Styles
When the freshly picked olives reach the processing plant, they are first left for a day to air out which releases some of their moisture, and are then selected and washed. The usual method for treating green olives, and the most popular in Spain and internationally (which ultimately prepares Seville or Spanish-style olives) consists in completely submerging them in an alkaline solution at a constant temperature to remove their natural bitterness. The length of the process depends on the olive variety and the temperature.
The solution should only penetrate through two-thirds or three-quarters of the olive flesh but never as far as the pit, in order to maintain the olive flavor. The olives are then washed and placed in brine-just water and salt at a concentration of about 9%- in which the fermentation takes place, transforming the sugars. Like other fermented products such as wine and cheese, olives need to be cured anf the whole process requires a minimum of two to three months.
Green olives, olives turning color and black olives are the three basic types of table olives, but before they can be packed they may still have to undergo pitting and sometimes stuffing, cutting, crushing or seasoning.
Tasty and Healthy
Table olives are not only good to eat but also have excellent nutritional qualities. The oil they contain is mostly made up of unsaturated fatty acids, especially oleic acid which, like olive oil, may help prevent cardiovascular disease. They are also very easy to digest because of their fiber content and contain a good proportion of minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and iodine.
These nutritional aspects are perhaps not very well-known, but the same cannot be said about the gastronomic qualities of olives. In Spain they are a standard ingredient in tapas, whether served alone or in a combination. A Gilda, named after the eponymous heroine of the North American movie, is a famous appetizer comprising an olive, an anchovy and a guindilla (chili pepper) on a stick, excellent any time of day. And plenty of other tapas include olives-from ensaladilla rusa (a Spanish type of potato salad), through tomato salad or anchovies in vinegar to canapés. And where would the classic Dry Martini be without the addition of an olive?
Olives have become something of a cultural emblem and appear in many traditional Spanish dishes-in Andalusian fish and meat stews, salads, with eggs, in the Catalonian and Majorcan cocas or flat cakes, in gazpacho, in stuffings and in certain cold cuts, such as Italian bologna. But Mediterranean cuisine in general also offers many dishes in which olives are an essential ingredient, such as French tapenade (a paste made from black olives, anchovies and capers), Greek salad (in which the two definitive ingredients are feta cheese and olives) and pizza and pasta in Italy. Likewise in Turkey and the Middle East, olives are irreplaceable.
According to the International Olive Council, during the 2007-2008 crop year, Spain produced 556,000 tons of table olives, way ahead of other producers such as Egypt (432,000 tons), Turkey (200,000 tons), Syria (100,000 tons), Morocco (100,000 tons); Greece (95,000 tons) and Italy (80,000 tons). Production has remained at very high levels during the last five years, recording an average of 500,000 tons, according to Asemesa, which represents 70% of Spanish table olive producers and traders.
About 40% of Spanish table olives are consumed in Spain, most of them green, especially green olives stuffed with anchovies. The remainder are exported, reaching a total of 198,000 tons in 2007.In recent years exports have risen sharply and now extend to 115 countries. Over the last decade, sales to Russia and other nations in eastern Europe have doubled, although it is still European Union countries that consume the most Spanish table olives, followed by the US, Canada and Puerto Rico.
The many well-known brands in the domestic market -La Española, Jolca, El Serpis , Carbonell - are known abroad by the generic brand Aceitunas de España, as table olives are a product synonymous with Spain in markets around the world. No matter what brand, however, table olives are an integral part of Spanish culture, and are the most common tapa to be served at a bar when one orders a pre-meal glass of wine, vermouth or beer. Try it yourself and you'll find that, like we are in Spain, you'll soon be hooked to this pre-lunch ritual.
Raquel Castillo is a food writer.