Perhaps no foodstuff is as ubiquitous in Spain as the humble olive. Aceitunas are served in almost every bar in the country. And given that there are about 132 bars per person in this country, that is a lot of olives. They say that there are upwards of 260 varieties; some for eating, some for oil, some for…decoration? If you like olives, welcome to paradise.
Every time you order a drink, depending on the city of course, you will often be presented with a little plate of olives, usually free. A tapa, an aperitif nibble, a hunger quencher, an accompaniment to your terrace beer, the olive is everywhere.
But there’s got to be more to them than that. With 260 varieties, there can’t be anything called a ‘Spanish olive’. People in England, unknowingly talk about black olives and green olives – not a thing, or ‘Greek style’ where low quality olives are doused with olive oil, dried herbs and feta cheese. So, what is the olive situation in Spain?
To get olives you have to have an olive tree. This frondy and hardy Mediterranean native dates back to Oligocene (20-40 million years ago). The Med started to cultivate this plant about 7000 years ago and evidence in carvings and writings can be found in Bronze Age Syria, Israel and Crete for example. It is a venerable and old foodstuff. Originally for oil and later for eating, the humble olive has been a tasty and non-fattening staple of Mediterranean cuisine for a long time.
The New World then received them when Spanish colonialists arrived 1560 in Peru and Chile. Spanish missionaries then headed up to California in the 18th century and the plucky little fruit arrived in the US. So even though the olive is not native to Spain, no country has done so much to promulgate its existence.
Such is the country’s love for the tree and its fruit, that it has by far and away the largest olive and olive oil production of any country on earth. Just to show what I mean, the most recent statistics from 2016/17 are quite staggering. For production in the EU the third producer was the potential ancient home of the tree itself, Greece, with 132,000 tonnes of olive oil. Second came Italy with 463,700 tonnes. And coming first, making a mockery of the rest, was Spain, with an astonishing 1,781,500 tonnes!
The problem, as so often with my adopted home, has been one of publicity and marketing. Spain, historically poorer than its neighbours France and Italy, was always playing catch up, snapping at gastronomical coat tails and settling for its sure-fire economics of beach, sun, sangria and rolling good times.
Spain used to sell bulk wine to France for them to beef up their wines: Spain has the largest amount of planted vineyards in the world and is third in production. Spain used to sell bulk olive oil to Italy, who would stamp it as Italian but ‘made with European olives’: and we’ve just seen those statistics. Things are changing now and as the generations have shifted, and the times generally improved, Spain is finally putting its foot down and getting noticed.
Olives are some of the most versatile little fruits on the planet and can be used in many ways: eaten fresh, seeded and stuffed, thrown into salads, added to cooked dishes, served in pickle cocktails, studded and baked in bread; it goes on.
First you harvest your olives, which when raw are ferociously bitter, and then cure and ferment them, usually in lye and/or brine for a few months. When you have your basic olive – more on that in a moment – you can then play around with different brines, marinades, stuffings and uses.
In Spain, despite the previously mentioned triple digit number, there is still a more common selection of olives that you are likely to bump into on a visit to the country.
Arbequina – Aragón and Catalunya
Blanqueta – Alicante
Cornicabra – La Mancha (Toledo)/Jaén
Lechín de Granada (Cuquillo) – Granada/Murcia/Almería
Empeltre (Aragonesas/Negra de Aragón) – Aragón
Gordal – Sevilla
Picuda – Córdoba
Hojiblanca – Málaga/Sevilla/Córdoba
Lechín de Sevilla – Sevilla
Obregón – Sevilla
Campo Real – Madrid
Manzanilla (cacereña) – Extremadura
Morisca – Badajoz
Picual – Jaén
Of course, unless you are an olive addict, a completist or a masochist, it is probably not worth worrying too much about this. But it’s always worth trying to find out what you’re eating as the styles vary widely and it’ll help you narrow down what you like to eat. Some are vinegary and meaty, others are mild and herby; some are very bitter while others are picked late and are soft and squidgy. And that is without getting started on the myriad flavoured brines and marinades on offer!
In general though, there are three classes:
- Green olives – picked before ripening but when full size – Manzanilla for example.
- Turning colour – varying colours from green to black, picked at the start of ripening – Campo Real for example.
- Black olives – picked at full maturity when ripe – Empeltre for example.
In general the Spanish don’t cook with olives, differing in that respect from the Portuguese, Italians and Greeks. Here they are a delicacy to be enjoyed in their simpler but, as seen above, varied form.
So when you’re here, see how many of the 260 you can check off!
Where I eat them:
Madrid – Mercado de Antón Martín: Aceitunas Juanjo (Calle de Santa Isabel, 5), Mercado de San Miguel (Plaza de San Miguel), La Cebada (Plaza de la Cebada), Taberna Real (Plaza de Isabell II, 8).
Barcelona – Mercat de la Llibertat (Plaça de la Llibertat, 27).
In general the markets are good places to try a variety, whereas most bars will have a smaller selection, often local.
What I drink with it:
Nothing goes quite as well with olives than a nice crisp beer. Ice cold and straight from the tap.
What I listen to:
Liar, Liar – Castaways