- Spain has a population of 30 million people and 300 million olive trees, the highest in the world.
- Tunisia has a population of 10 million and 70 million olive trees.
- It is Greece that has the highest olive oil consumption in the world, because olive trees grow in all parts of the country: in Italy, above a certain latitude there are no olive trees, so butter and cream are used in cooking in North Italy.
- Syria is the fourth largest producer of olive oil in the world
- Each country more or less has its own set of olive varieties. Kalamata of Greece is a famous table olive; leccino is a well-known varietal in South and Central Italy and the pungent fruitiness of picual gives a Spanish olive oil away every time.
- Some types of olives are best suited for table olives; others for olive oil
- By law, cold pressed oil (which is what extra virgin olive oil is) cannot exceed 27 degrees Celsius during the pressing process.
- Olive oil, lemon juice and coarse salt is the basis of the Mediterranean diet
- The Mediterranean Sea links three continents: Europe to the north, West Asia to the south east and North Africa to the South West. The only common thread running between them is olive cultivation.
- The world production of vegetable oil is 140 million tons. By contrast, the world production of olive oil is a mere 3 million tons.
Nowadays, many taxis in Delhi have a sunshade on their rear window that advertises a brand of Spanish olive oil that can be delivered to your home. Every time I catch sight of one of these advertisements, it makes me smile. South Asia in general and Delhi in particular is a world away from the Mediterranean which is the home of the olive and consequently, olive oil. The cuisine of that region has curled around its one superstar: olive oil. Go to a Spanish supermarket and not only will the shelves be groaning with at least one dozen brands of olive oils, the cosmetics department will have a few soaps that are guaranteed to contain 12 percent of olive oil; the snack foods section will probably have wafers flavoured with olive oil and sea-salt, and so on. Olive oil itself is really only the tip of the iceberg.
In Sabena, not far from Rome, some of us were taken sightseeing. No, it wasn’t to see yet another old ruin or a church: the star of this show was an olive tree that was reputed to be 1,600 years old. The owner of the small farm had bought the entire property, lock, stock and barrel only because of that single tree. But what a tree it was. My group, about a dozen of us, spent upwards of an hour trying to pose singly and together in the shade of the beautiful old tree that was too old to actually give fruit. What was so heart warming was the reverence with which it was treated by the owner and the neighbours for miles and miles around.
The twelve of us were journalists from around the world: there were three of us from India, two from China, two from Serbia, one each from Canada and the United States and three from Russia. Some of us were published authors: Irena the Russian lady, who hurries home from her day job to work on her cookbooks that have brought her fame and fortune, Isabelle the beauty of our group who is a nutritionist with television appearances and books to her credit and Joyce from Burlington, USA, who has a renowned gourmet cookbook for diabetics to her credit. Others were journalists: Lin Hua and Ye Jun from China, Rasheeda and Chitra from India, Sergey and Natalya from Russia, Igor and Emmo from Serbia.
We are the guests of the International Olive Oil Council, based in Madrid, with member countries that are centered around the Mediterranean Sea, which is, after all, the birth place of the olive. So far this motley bunch of us has been getting into a mini bus, chattering madly, and being driven all over the country, visiting olive oil groves and olive oil mills. We do that from morning to late evening, every day for eight days and we’ve visited three countries so far, one a year. You’d think that our journey would be boring, livened only by visits to great restaurants, but you’d be completely wrong.
What makes the story of the olive, its tree, fruit and oil so compelling is the way it fits in to the landscape. As Paco Nunes de Prada told us early on in our visit to Andalusia, Southern Spain, “Just look at the way the golden sun is shining on the olive trees causing the whole landscape to glow like molten liquid gold! Or may it’s just I who thinks so, and the rest of you thinks that the landscape of my ancestors is just plain boring.” The aristocratic Nunes de Prada, in whose family the olive groves he was referring to, had been nurtured for seven generations, managed to communicate some of his passion to all of us and since then, we’ve never looked at an olive tree as just another plant.
Spend two days around olive plantations, and you’ll be able to tell them apart by appearance alone. Old plantations have narrow spaces between the rows of trees whose trunks are sturdy: they were planted in the days when plucking was an entirely human endeavour. New plantations have trees with slender trunks and widely spaced rows: olive plucking has become mechanized. You need trolleys, miles of nets and plastic vibrating machines that look like brooms. There are not that many trees anywhere in the world much above one hundred years: those that do have a timeless, wind-hewn appearance.
Most trees in the Mediterranean basin, though, are between twenty and sixty years old. The geographical terrain they grow in can vary from sub-Saharan in Central Tunisia to the lush hills of Tuscany in Central Italy.
“The way the olive tree has influenced the landscape is the way that its oil has influenced the food,” says Pino Cipolla, Director, Pietro Coricelli. The rolling hills around the factory in Spoleto glow rose at sunset and the ashen leaves of the olive trees rustle in the breeze all the way to infinity. There is a certain endearing appeal of olive country that warms the heart, no matter where in the world there is. Our group visited Andalusia in over four days during which time, we were always in sight of olive trees: Andalusia is, after all, where the bulk of Spain’s 300 million olive trees can be found. In the two days that we were back in Madrid, we didn’t see a single olive tree, so the whole busload of us burst into applause on our way to Toledo when we spotted yet more olive groves. We were hooked on our first trip itself.
In the labyrinthine souks of the Tunisian capital, Tunis, you hardly notice the toothpaste white walls or the cerulean blue of the doors of the shops that cram the ancient alleyways. Every surface is covered with handicrafts. Mortars and pestles made with olive wood, all grainy and gnarled, tiny replicas of olive trees made with silver and fragrant balsam, tiles depicting olive branches that call to mind Roman mosaics that have been excavated in ten places in the country, even pottery bowls for serving olive oil: the accessories of the all-important ingredient of the Mediterranean diet are visible everywhere.
Olive oil has grown in status ever since it was discovered that communities following the so-called Mediterranean diet had low incidences of cancers and heart dysfunction. Since then, there is a race on to see which country can reach out to new markets. After all, the Mediterranean countries themselves are considered saturated markets. So far, USA and Canada are winning by a huge margin, but there’s still scope in the 2nd tier towns of those countries. And everybody’s eyeing the Asian giants: India and China. After which, Russia and the Balkan countries will be on the radar.
There are a few advantages of being in a non-olive producing country like ours. One is that you can get olive oil from various parts of the world. By contrast, Spain only sells Spanish olive oil, Greece only Greek oil and so forth. About the only exception is Italy, where blended olive oil as opposed to single varietals is the norm. Thus, one batch of oil that is sold as Italian, may have traces of Spanish, Turkish and Syrian in it, though this is not indicated on the label. Branded oil can be sold at a far higher price than an anonymous container on a ship that looms up from out of the blue, and so, oils made by blending together the produce of different countries may be on its way out in a few years, helped on by a legislation that requires a list of the countries of origin on the label.
You’ll know the taste of extra virgin olive oil straight away. It is usually green rather than yellow and is always fruity and should have an identifiably olive flavour. And such is its incomparable flavour that all twelve of us use nothing but olive oil in our homes.