Olives and Olive Oil

Spain is the world’s largest olive oil producer, responsible for 45 percent of world production. This prominence is nothing new. Archaeological finds prove that Spain supplied the Roman Empire with olive oil. (The Romans brought the trees to Spain in the first place.) Today, the country claims 250 million olive trees, some of them more than 1,000 years old.

A remarkable 80 percent of Spain’s output comes from one region: Andalucía. In this hot, arid part of southern Spain, olive trees span the landscape as far as the eye can see. Catalonia takes a distant second place.

More than 260 types of olives grow in Spain, although not all of them are prized for oil. Although some producers make single-varietal oils, most oils are blends. The major oil varieties include:

  • Arbequina: A small olive grown in Catalonia, it produces a delicate, fruity oil with a pleasant piquancy and nutty nuances. Too delicate for frying but recommended for salads, mayonnaise, vegetables and fish.
  • Cornicabra: An olive used only in fine oils, grown for centuries near Toledo. It yields a golden, slightly sweetish oil with a velvety texture. Good for salads and uncooked sauces such as mayonnaise.
  • Hojiblanca: A large, plump olive valued for the table as well as for oil, it produces a golden oil with a characteristic sweetness and a bitter almond finish. Recommended for frying and pastry-making.
  • Picual: By far the dominant oil olive in Spain, it yields a fruity, fresh oil with good body and a desirable hint of bitterness. Good for fish, salads and gazpacho, and for frying.
  • Picudo: A late-maturing olive grown in Andalucía, it makes a smooth, fruity oil with floral aromas and no harshness. Recommended for gazpacho, salad, grilled bread and pastry.

Spain is a member of the International Olive Oil Council, so Spanish olive oil producers must comply with IOOC regulations. That means that a Spanish olive oil labeled as extra virgin has less than 1 percent acidity and was extracted by cold pressing, without the use of chemicals or heat.

Like top olive oil producers in other countries, the best Spanish producers pick their olives by hand (machines can damage the fruit and the trees) and get them to the crusher as soon as possible. If olives aren’t crushed within a day or so, they may begin to ferment and develop off flavors.

In times past, most producers used large granite grindstones to crush the olives. Today, many are moving to more modern hammermills or other milling machinery. Methods for separating the oil from the olive paste are also changing. Traditionally, the paste was spread on grass mats that were then stacked and pressed hydraulically to expel the oil. Now many are using a centrifuge to separate the oil and vegetable water from the solids, then using a second centrifuge to separate the oil from the water component. Others believe that centrifuges damage the oil and prefer to let the oil and water separate naturally in holding tanks.

Producers may differ about the best machinery and methods for crushing and pressing olives, but they have to agree that they have many more choices than they had in the past.

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