Olive Oil, Part 3 – Spain

spain, main oil types, areas of production, history of, arab influence, traditional harvesting, pressing, modern methods, 4 recipes, preserving, alioli, potato and cheese, DO


Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world.
The three main areas of oil production in Spain are Andalusia, Lower Aragon and Catalonia.  Since Andalusia produces the most oil – I’ll begin with Andalusia, but before I begin – let me insert the names of the major olive types cultivated in Spain.

  • Picual – very fruity, hints of dried figs and peaches. It goes very well with thinly sliced oranges, thyme, honey, a sprinkling of cardamom seeds and cinnamon. It is often blended with Picuda or Hojiblanca
  • Hojiblanca – an elegant oil with both sweet and bitter notes
  • Verdial – a golden, very mild and fruity oil with a slight almond aroma – good for gazpachos and steamed dishes
  • Arbequina – pale yellow to greenish oil, slightly bitter and with a typical smell of ripe artichokes – slightly fresh. Excellent for salads and most marinated dishes
  • Empeltre – mainly pale yellow to old gold in colour with a fruity, slightly sweet almond flavour, occasionally bitter. Delicious when a few drops are slipped onto your sheeps milk cheese.
  • Cornicabra – a golden oil with greenish reflections – velvety sweet with slightly bitter inflections – excellent in vegetable dishes.

The Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origin (INDO), maintains the “Denominación de Origin” (DO) program for a broad range of agricultural products. In short, it’s a quality control program, designed to ensure and control the origin, the production methods and the raw materials, etc in olive oil.
They have recognized four DO areas and no words can describe these heavenly oils adequately!

  • Les Garrigues
  • Siurana
  • Sierra del Segura
  • Baena

The two main new ones are

  • Priego de Córdoba
  • Sierra Mágina

The Romans in Andalusia exported olive oil to the rest of the Mediterranean, as previously mentioned. Heinrich Dressel came across Monte Testaccio on the banks of the Tiber in 1872 to find the 50 meters high ‘hump’ filled with 40 million amphorae (image above) –  each one labeled with the name of the producer, the year and the quality of the oil.
Olives arrived in Spain about 3,000 years ago when the Romans started cultivating plantations there very successfully. Whilst Spain was under Islamic rule, production and cultivation was encouraged probably because the Arabs used the oil themselves and also because they encouraged the Spaniards to do pretty much what they did before – and yes, they were even permitted freedom of religion. The Arabs were passionately interested in education and learning and once they had conquered Spain, destruction was the last thing they wanted. They promoted cultural development wherever they went, but the church had no intention of losing the powerful grip it once had over Europe and eventually wiped most of them out. Cordoba (Andalusia) became the capital of what the Arabs called the Moorish kingdom of El-Andalus, at which time work began on the Great Mosque (Mezquita). After hundreds of years of additions and enlargements it became one of the largest in all of Islam. When the city was reconquered by the Christians in 1236, the new rulers of the city were so awed by its beauty that they left it standing, building their cathedral in the midst of its rows of arches and columns, and creating the extraordinary church-mosque we see today. (Mesquita pictured below).

Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world. Two million hectares house 220 million olive trees and 60% of them are found in Andalusia, mainly in Jaén and Cordoba. In Cordoba the Picuda and Hojiblanca olive are mainly cultivated and in Jaén, the Picual is found in 90% of that area.  In order to produce the absolute best cold-pressed olive oil, the trees are looked after with incredible care and the olives are processed with obsessive care. Traditionally there should be about 80 trees per hectare in order to ensure that they are well-fed and only organic compost used, with not too much water. They harvest using the vareo method (when people hit the olives out of the tree, using sticks and the olives fall into big nets).  I’m sure that someone must have seen it on the many food networks on television. For the really expensive olive oil, the olives are picked by hand to inflict as little harm as possible. The Andalusian Committee for Ecological Agriculture controls the standards and all oils are organic. Unfortunately, because they are not getting subsidized, more modern methods are slowly being introduced and the big companies are planting trees closer together so that they can be mechanically harvested and thus producing poorer quality oil.

When the older methods are used, any picked olives that were split, unripe or oxidized would not have been used. Many larger companies, sadly, do. They were ground to a paste first together with the pip using huge granite rollers. Today only a few oils are rendered in that way. The flor de aceite (when the paste is not centrifuged or pressed but allowed to run out of the paste during grinding, then collected) is a magical and magnificent oil. It is scarce and very expensive, but if you ever get hold of some or receive it as a gift, hide it!  Normally the ground paste is hydraulically pressed between circular mats. (Nowadays esparto grass mats are not used, only plastic). The vital point is that the process is gentle and no heat is used. Finally, in order to get the oil clear, it is filtered even though the modern trend is to leave the oil cloudy.

I have a recipe that I love – it’s simple and always produces a good olive to serve with wine or beer.


1 kg fresh green olives
50 g sodium bicarbonate
6 cloves of garlic, classically the fresh ones are used and then sliced
2 tablespoons dried oregano
a few sprigs fresh time
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cardamom pips, I love cardamom & usually try to add it anywhere – with much success
3 fresh chili’s, cut into rings, remove seeds
25 g good salt
125 ml of the best wine vinegar, I like using French

Wash the olives and crack each olive with a mallet or a stone – not too hard because you may not hurt the pip. Put the olives in a bowl (glass or porcelain please) and drain off all the juice. Dissolve the sodium bicarbonate in 3 liters of water, submerge the olives and leave in the water for a day. Now drain this and put into fresh cold water. Continue doing this for 3 days, changing the water every 12 hours. After this, drain them well, rinse and dry with kitchen paper lightly – then leave them to dry for a while. If you have space inside your fridge, put it in there without covering. Obviously there should be nothing inside that smells.  A fridge dries food well.
Crush half of the garlic with the herbs and chili pods using a pestle and mortar. Dissolve the salt in the vinegar, add 750 ml water and pour this brine over the olives. Weigh down the olives so that they’re covered with the brine and leave out of the way, in a cool place for about 10 days – 2 weeks.

Should you want to use black olives, please just put them in salt water (without the sodium bicarbonate) for about 3 days and change the water every 12 hours. With the black olives, I would rather leave out the chili and the cardamom.  I have, with great success, used sun dried tomatoes instead. For the same recipe as above, add about 7 sun dried tomatoes, sliced into thin strips – half crushed in the pestle and mortar and half in the bottle.


The Roman influence is prevalent here as well and in Bajo Aragón the hills and plains are covered with plantations – really top class ones at that! However, the Spanish (or Aragonese) have the Arabs to thank for the pressing skills. The Moors developed oil mills that operated with draft animals and hand-operated presses – and at the end of the 19th century the French had a hand in the presses as well.  Pérez, in his book Guia del Buen Comer Español describes the oil as quite “exquisite”.  Quite a compliment from a usually dour gastronome.
Here, the most important olive is the Empeltre olive.


Only 4% of the Spanish production comes from these parts but oh, what oil! Two of the four Spanish oils that carry the sought after denomination of origin (Denominaciones de Origen, D.O.) – namely Siurana and Les Garrigues come from this area. I have had the Siurana a few times and it is one of those rare oils that is so good that it strengthens the faith – it’s just so damned amazing.
The most important variety of oil in Catelonia is the Arbequina, small and green if picked young, becoming violet and then black as it matures.  The little green ones are often turned into tapas and the cold pressed Arbequina makes up 90% of the Siurana oil. The oil itself has the palest of yellow colours with only 0,5% acidity.  Les Garrigues oil (also with 90% Arbequina) has a greenish colour from the young fruit used and a slightly bitter flavour but fruity aroma. Riper fruit makes a dark yellow oil, suitable for alioli and mayonnaise.

I have included quite a few recipes today – let’s start with


4 large cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon salt
250 ml olive oil
Fresh lemon juice to taste

This is made with a pestle and mortar, preferably one of those wooden ones. It takes at least 20 minutes to finish, but worth the wait. If it gets too thick to work with, put a drop of water in to loosen the mixture somewhat.

MARTHA ALIOLI – an easy one to try – it should really not even be put on a Spanish page, but since the result is so good, here it is:

2 egg yolks
250 ml olive oil
3 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
Salt to taste
Lemon juice – also to taste

Put olive oil and salt into your blender.
Blend and then add the egg yolk, allowing the blender to run very slowly
Add the oil, literally drop by drop at first and then continuing until it thickens and you can pour it in using a thin stream.  Add the lemon juice to taste.


1 orange
1 lemon
4 garlic cloves, peeled
100 ml Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Half teaspoon salt
300 g olives (select your own favorite variety or mixture)


Remove the orange and lemon zest and put 1/4 of each to one side. Put half the juice of the orange to one side. Split open the garlic cloves by placing them on a chopping board and pressing down hard with the base of your hand or the flat side of a knife. Mix the orange and lemon zests with the orange juice, thyme, garlic, olive oil, salt and vinegar. Add the olives and combine well, using your hands. Put in a Ziploc bag, extract all air and marinate for about 24 hours and serve at room temperature.

By Chef Jose Andres, author of “Tapas”

600 g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
325 ml cream
125 ml Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
125 g Gruyere cheese, rind removed and cut into small cubes
Salt to taste

Boil potatoes in a large pot until soft, put through a ricer and mash until you create a smooth puree.  Add salt to taste.
Heat the cream until almost boiling point and put one tablespoon to one side and add the rest to the potatoes. Mix with a wooden spoon until the cream is thoroughly incorporated into the puree. Mix in the cheese cubes with a wooden spoon quickly and thoroughly until it is part of the puree. Add most of the oil until it has amalgamated with the puree. Check and correct the taste.
Drizzle the rest of the olive oil and the tablespoon of warm cream over the potatoes.



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4 responses to “Olive Oil, Part 3 – Spain

  1. i love spanish olive oil! i have a bottle of it in my fridge. i love how the different olive oils taste unique.

  2. It’s great, isn’t it. It is a rare pleasure to attend olive oil tastings – one leaves there ‘in love’ with all of them!

  3. All of the information that you’ve shared thus far has left me literally dreaming olives, but this post in particular was an absolute great read! The recipe for Martha olives (did you say cardamom? love it!) is one to be tried as soon as I can get a hold of green olives. It’ll be a first-time experiment for me — thank you so much for sharing this!

  4. I’m thrilled!! You get to pick the next topic!

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