Origins of Olive Oil Production in Spain

  • The origins of olive oil in Spain dates back at least to the 1st century BC, under the rule of the Roman Empire.
  • The true origin of this cultivation appears to be in Asia Minor, the Near East, and Syria, although traces have also been found in North Africa and Greece.


The origins of olive oil in Spain

Today, olive oil is considered a typically Spanish product. The southern European country has become the leading producer and exporter of this highly valued good, whose unique nutritional properties and characteristic flavor have earned it the nickname “liquid gold.” However, the cultivation of this tree dates back several millennia, and its origin, though debated, seems to have occurred far from the borders of the Iberian Peninsula.

There are many reasons why olive oil stands out as such a prized good; beyond its variety of flavors and healthy qualities, which promote the development of “good” cholesterol and boost metabolism, olive oil is the only fat in the world obtained by pressing, without the need for any additional techniques or additives. Similarly, olive cultivation is very rewarding, as nearly every part of the tree is used, from the fruit to the bark, which is highly valued in woodworking and makes an excellent fuel.

Some of the first major civilizations quickly recognized the importance and benefits of this tree. Although it was already highly valued by the Egyptians, it was in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire that it saw immense expansion, reaching territories that would later correspond to countries such as Cyprus, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location where the first wild olive trees emerged, it can be stated with relative certainty that organized cultivation first took place in the region of Syria more than 6,000 years ago. The importance of this tree and its fruit is evident in biblical writings, where the olive branch is associated with peace due to its use by Noah. Thus, the origins of olive oil would be found in the Middle East.

Syria is believed to be one of the first countries to have seen olive trees grow.

Olive trees in Spain

The origins of olive oil cultivation in Spain dates back, according to authors like Caraballo and Pedraja Chaparro, to the first century BC, when the peninsula was part of the Western Roman Empire. However, recent research has found remains of olive leaves and stones in sites near Bolonia, in southern Spain, which may date back to 3,000 or 4,000 BC. Several authors argue that the introduction of olive oil to Europe took place via the Mediterranean, probably through the southeastern part of the continent. This, combined with the proximity to Africa, where wild olive remains have also been found, suggests that the Iberian Peninsula was likely the first to know this tree.

However, nothing can be assured, as the olive tree already held significant cultural importance in antiquity. One of the civilizations where its cultivation was paramount was Greece, where it held great cultural and religious value. It was believed that the tree was a gift from the goddess Athena, who, in a contest with the god Poseidon, struck her trident into a rock on the Acropolis of Athens, causing a tree to sprout that could feed, light, and perfume the Greeks.

The entire history and symbolic importance of olive oil in Ancient Greece may stem from the fact that the olive tree is likely native to the region. This belief is supported by the existence of a Greek word for the tree, elaia (from which the Latin term oleum, root of the Spanish word oliva and the English word olive, is derived). If it had been introduced from Syria, they would likely have adopted the Hebrew zayit or zeit, as happened in North African countries and, therefore, in the Iberian Peninsula, eventually giving rise to the Spanish term aceite.

Since its introduction during Roman times, the olive tree has been one of the major crops in Spain. The origin of this introduction is linked to the transformation of the Roman economy in the 2nd century BC, when the Empire decided to restructure its crops to favor product exportation. Due to this change, the Hispanic population began to become the main exporter of olives and wine, with significant investments in the Ebro and Betis basins.

In just a few years, the Iberian Peninsula became the leading exporter of this good, surpassing Italy. However, olives and vines were not the only indigenous Hispanic crops, as wheat, a traditional planting in the area and now the third component of what is known as the Mediterranean triad, must also be included.

The strong competitiveness of the olive oil market at the time meant that Hispania’s leadership in the sector was challenged during different periods, with the Istrian Peninsula being one of the main threats. Nevertheless, the ideal soil and climate conditions in areas like the Lower Guadalquivir made it possible for olive cultivation to survive the fall of the Romans and continue through the various peoples who have passed through the peninsula to this day.

Olive oil origins
Olive oil origins can be traced back more than 3000 years.

Expansion in the Iberian Peninsula

The Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries served to modernize olive planting by implementing innovative techniques such as the study of different olive varieties and fertilizers, as well as optimizing harvesting stages. The plowing of the land was also improved, with fields being plowed two or three times before planting. This resulted in the significant increase in production, fully supplying the population and allowing for export to other regions.

Although it was a very important crop for many centuries, it was not until the 16th century that it truly flourished, with the advancement of oil production in provinces such as Jaén in Andalusia, which are key in the olive oil business today. This was due to the end of a turbulent period of war in the Iberian Peninsula known as the Reconquista, which concluded with the victory of Christian troops and the expulsion of the Muslim population. This war period caused both sides to focus on weapons rather than crops, neglecting much of the Spanish olive groves.

Olive cultivation imposed by the Muslim population was eventually forgotten by the new Christian settlers, who took a long time to achieve similar yields to the previous inhabitants of the peninsula. At that time, moreover, food was not the only primary use of olive oil, which was also used for lighting, in religious rituals, as a cosmetic, and even as a medicinal element.

One of the main reasons for the expansion of the olive tree from the 16th century in Spain is the change in the morphology of the fields. According to the magazine “Andalucía en la Historia,” the Spanish olive groves had a “scattered” arrangement, very different from the row organization we know today. The shift to the modern olive grove configuration and the end of the Ancien Régime greatly facilitated the expansion of olive fields and the consolidation of Spain as the world’s leading olive oil producer.

The modernization of production methods and the advancement of olive cultivation as an intensive crop have led to a tenfold increase in the number of hectares where it grows in Andalusia compared to those dedicated in the mid-18th century. This has made the Andalusian region the world’s leading producer of olive oil and the main exporter of this good to countries like the United States, China, Japan, and the Middle East.


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