To be alone by choice is a luxury. And I lavishly savour it today as I am driving on olive land while chewing on some interesting things about this corner of Andalucia. The day is bright already and I am holding onto the wheel as I drive up steep mountain roads only to descend to ziggety country paths a few minutes later. Driving is anything but boring here.
“Aceite de oliva, todo mal quita,”- Olive oil cures all ill – the saying goes and I reminiscence as I tackle the challenging curves of the road. The smile still makes its way onto my face when I think of an incident that happened to me when I visited Egypt for the first time. I was sick; really sick with stomach cramps and fever a few days after I landed in Cairo. My hands were shaking, and I was so disorientated from the dehydration I needed to call the doctor. After wobbling to the local pharmacy, he looked at me and said: “Zayt Zaytoun”. I must have looked very confused because he repeated it while holding up a small bottle of olive oil. “Just ddrrrink this ttree times a day and khair, insha Allah all is fine”.
I walked home desperate and angry. You are giving me olive oil, you moron, when I am sick? But I had no energy to go to the hospital, plus I was terrified of being stuck in a grim hospital in Cairo on my very first visit alone, so I chickened out and went to bed with my bottle of olive oil. For three days I could not hold anything down, but I diligently followed the doctor’s advice and drank zayt zaytoun. Three days later I was up and about, as if the liquid was the best medicine. It must have been the best introduction to a new ingredient in my life that I since fell in love with over and over again.
Driving along the Andalucian countryside has a sedating effect. Wherever your eyes wonder, you see mountains reaching beyond your horizon. You can rest your tired mind on the endless greenery of the olive groves near Antequerra or the brown-soiled Cordoba region, and they are a specular field you want to pitch up your tent and hang a hammock between two trees. You cannot help but fall in love with the simple beauty of a forest made up of the silvery-green leafed trees that embrace Andalucia like a protective net cast across it. Wisdom, peace, fertility, prosperity, and success are the words most often associated with olives, and they deeply resonate with the human spirit. Here your soul and spirit will be aligned with a deeper part of you. Touched by the olive trees’ magic, your senses calm down and you walk in an otherworldly fashion, each breath opening your heart to the marvel at this humble plant.
Every part of the olive plant is used and useful. Its branches provide wood for carpentry and fire. Its leaves have medicinal properties to help infections and inflammations, and the fruit is pressed into one of the most useful and healthiest oils. The durability of the trees is remarkable and can revive itself even when it is burnt down. The older the tree is, the most olives it produces. Some trees live up to two thousand years, they are true survivals of time. They require little maintenance and flourish on well-drained slopes in hot weather. The simplicity that surrounds the life of an olive tree is astonishing, humbling and truly inspiring.
Olive production has been part of Andalucian landscape since the Phoenicians, but it gained its fame at the time of the Moors, who turned it into profitable business. The olive tree (Olea Europea) was introduced to Europe by the Greeks and the Phoneicians, as they started producing olive oil in Andalucia, the breadbasket of the Roman empire as it was called at the time. Some sources mention olive production, such as the book De Bello Hispanico, which describes the landscape of the territories during Julius Caesar’s campaigns near Seville. You can also read about the archaeological evidence found in the excavations at Monte Testaccio indicating that over a period of two hundred sixty years or so Rome imported some six billion five hundred million litres of olive oil, of which 85% was produced in Andalucia.
By the time the Moors arrived in the 8th century, olive production was well underway. The new settlers introduced new techniques to enable mass production and transportation to create business across other regions, bringing profit to the dwindling economy of Andalucia, turning it into a thriving business. Olive and olive oil production continued to develop in the coming decades during the Moorish rule, surviving the ravages and devastation of many wars. Olives were later taken to the New World by Spanish settlers during the 16th and 17th centuries, and are now established in many former colonial areas, most notably California and South America.
There are more than 200 varieties of olives grown in the region and some are: Picual, Hojiblanca, Lechin, Cornicabra, Verdial, Picudo, Arbequina, and Empeltre varieties. Producing olive oil is a lengthy, conscious process and it takes time, energy and attention, possibly more than any other gardening. There are many factors that determines the quality of the olive oil a land can produce.
“To give an idea of the importance of this sector to Andalusia, Andalusian olive groves are the country’s biggest producers and the world’s leading olive tree grower, with over 1.5 million hectares, 900,000 tonnes of Olive Oil and 380,000 tonnes of table olives. On average, Andalusian production accounts for 80% of national production and 30% of global production. It is concentrated in over 300 Andalusian towns known as olive-growing towns, and this sector generates 30% of agricultural employment in the region, and nearly 1000 (973) related industries. Olive groves in Andalusia cover nearly half of all the agricultural terrain in our region and they are particularly prominent in the province of Córdoba, the north-west of Granada, the north of Malaga and the south-east of Seville. These areas all form the area known as the “olive grove hub” or the “diagonal line of olive groves”. (Source: UNESCO World Heritage Report).
How the olive is produced is what gives me the faith and belief once again that everything is interconnected. The fruit tree is not enough to produce the best oil. You need patience perseverance, and nature to collaborate with you. The fruit is pressed and the quicker it is pressed, the better-quality olive oil we get. The faster we attend the produce, the better quality we get. Rumination is not a friend for olive production, however getting to the point of harvest is all that matters. Attention to creating the environment for optimal production is key; the rest takes care of itself. Timing is everything with olive production, it seems! What an olive grove is offering is multitude of opportunities to access wisdom and you will always walk away filled in your heart from an olive groove. Wisdom, faith and spirituality cannot exist in isolation and your connection deepens as much as your wisdom when you attend an olive groove.