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Cultural Importance of Olive Oil in Andalusia

  • Olive oil is a product of vital cultural importance in Andalusia, the largest producer of this good in Spain.
  • Nearly 80% of Spain’s total olive oil is produced in Andalusia, spread across more than 200 different varieties.

Expansion of Olive Oil in Andalusia

Olive oil is of utmost importance in Andalusia. So much so that this southern region is the largest producer in Spain, which in turn is the world’s leading producer. The beginnings of olive cultivation in Andalusia are somewhat obscure in historical records. While remnants of leaves that could belong to wild olive trees from millennia ago have been found in the Bolonia area (Cádiz), the first mention of this tree is found in the Natural History by the Roman author Pliny the Elder.

The olive tree is merely a domestication of the wild olive, a wild relative present in ancient Andalusia according to many researchers. The long lifespan of this tree in the region and natural genetic variations have resulted in over two hundred olive variants in the community today. This variety contributes to a wide range of flavors in olives and has earned thirteen Protected Designation of Origin seals.

Although Jaén is the province with the largest olive-growing area (over half a million hectares) and is a global reference in olive oil production, the province of Córdoba has the same number of quality seals, totaling four (Priego, Baena, Adamuz, and Lucena). This is partly due to the importance of this crop in Córdoba during the Muslim occupation.

Cultural importance of Olive Oil in Andalusia

Legacy and Architectural Heritage of Olive Cultivation in Andalusia

The cultural importance of olive oil in Andalusia is not limited to the number of olives in the region. This cultivation has become a true symbol of Andalusia, and its presence in the countryside is unmistakable to any visitor. Besides the crops, the legacy of the olive tree is evident in regional architecture. Factories, estates, and mills form part of the typical local landscape, many maintaining their traditional layout for over two centuries.

Also notable are the oil mills, where olives are pressed, and oil is extracted. Although many have modernized and adopted cutting-edge methods, some exceptions remain, such as the medieval oil mill of Las Laerillas in the town of Nigüelas. Advances in technology in the 19th century led to a remodeling of the oil business model and the oil mills, resulting in the buildings we know today.

Alongside the oil mills, the most common buildings in the Andalusian landscape are the estates and farmhouses. These buildings are unique to Andalusian culture and easily recognizable. Their origin, dating back to the 16th century, combines the functions of a secondary residence for landowners with olive oil production work. Their owners were typically high-class individuals, such as nobles, large landowners, or high-ranking clergy members, and it was common for the household service, composed of lower-class men and women, to live there.

The Olive Tree in Andalusian Art and Literature

Olive trees in southern Spain is not only seen in its impact on the landscape. The cultural importance of olive oil in Andalusia is also reflected in its numerous appearances in various artistic disciplines. In painting, for example, it is widely represented by artists like Vincent Van Gogh, who dedicated six paintings to this tree while in the French region of Provence. In Spain, according to art historian Rafael López Guzmán, the olive tree has been “a constant” in art due to its formal characteristics and symbolism.

Great Spanish artists like Dalí and Miró have also depicted the olive tree in their paintings. Among Andalusian artists, it prominently features in Picasso’s work, who learned to appreciate and depict rural life during his time in the Tarragonian town of Horta de Sant Joan. Here, he began his artistic journey, sketching his surroundings, inevitably including olive trees. This early material is of great interest, showcasing a more realistic painting style before his later Cubism. Later, the Malagueño immortalized the olive branch in the beak of his Dove of Peace, based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.

Many authors have described Andalusian olive groves in their 20th-century literature. Notable poets like Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado highlighted the olive tree’s virtues in their writings, such as simplicity and the hospitality of its shade for field workers, as well as its importance to the national landscape, and more specifically, the typical Andalusian landscape. However, perhaps the most well-known literary mention of the Andalusian olive tree comes from an Alicante poet, Miguel Hernández. He authored “Aceituneros,” a work of such cultural significance in Andalusia that it is officially recognized as the anthem of the province of Jaén.

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