In the US, olive oil is generally a fancy oil that we pull out when we want to make Italian food or a fancy salad. If we want to fry something, we use something cheap like canola. We do this partly because olive oil is a bit expensive, and also because it has a low burning temperature, meaning it burns quickly and adds carcinogens to your food.
In Spain? I mean, we’ve SEEN other kinds of oil, besides olive. But it was more expensive than olive oil, and there wasn’t a super great selection. And really olive oil is probably the second most common table condiment, besides tomato (not ketchup, literal tomato crushed onto bread). And most of what we order has at LEAST a drizzle of olive oil on it. Funny side story. Back in Germany, I had a Spanish floor mate. One day, he decided to make French fries for dinner. How did he do it? He took a out a wok, filled it with half a bottle of olive oil, added 3 potatoes worth of raw potato, and just deep fried it then and there, in olive oil. The whole building smelled awesome, but it blew my mind at the time. How could you use that much tasty oil for something as simple as french fries? After living here for barely a month, and having already gone through 3 bottles of olive oil, I think I understand.
So what’s the deal with Spain and olives?
Olive trees are hardy, stubborn things, and also probably the only things capable of being grown in this climate without requiring serious effort. I used to wonder how the farmers managed to water all of the trees, especially when we learned after we got here that it hadn’t rained for 6 months. They aren’t irrigated, they aren’t connected to a central water system. They just sit there magically producing fruit. Olive trees don’t give a damn about where they are growing. Actually, that’s not true, because if the soil is TOO fertile, or the temperatures TOO pleasant, the trees can get diseases and they produce less fruit.
Kaeti and I have driven through most of the Midwest USA. We’ve seen the massive corn and wheat fields that go on for miles and miles. And still, we have been truly astounded by how expansive the olive groves in Spain are. As far as the eye can see, up every hill and mountain, from the exact border of the city to infinity and beyond, 60 million olive trees. So yes, our province truly is the world capital for olive oil production. 45% of the worlds supply of olive oil comes from Spain, half of that is from our province alone.
Our town is ringed with oil factories, at least three major ones. When they start production, boy is it obvious. When they are making oil, there is a cloud of….something lingering over the entire city. It has a very distinct and strong smell. It isn’t necessarily a bad smell like when we lived in Greeley next to the feed lots. Actually, for the first week we were here we thought it was the smell of people grilling chorizo. It smells earthy, kind of like a spicy paprika mixed with an old salad or something. We were so used to the smog in Korea that when we first got here and saw the haze, we assumed it was smog. But nope, olive oil.
My school gets a regional newspaper delivered every day, and sometimes I read through it. It’s good Spanish practice, it lets me know more about our area, and it keeps my co-workers guessing (“Wait, how well can he speak Spanish?”). A few weeks ago, I came across this cool news story.
Basically, two business guys are trying to convince local farmers to break tradition, and start growing Aloe Vera. It’s just as hardy, and just as low maintenance, as olive trees. So they would grow it, and sell the gel to cosmetic and pharmaceutical businesses. We’ve seen a few individual aloe plants out there, so maybe it’s taking off for real. That’s pretty much the most interesting news article from our city, as far as I can tell. Not much happens here…
We have talked briefly about the “Via Verde de Acietes”. You can see it in the picture above, it’s the little path running through the grove. But in case you forgot, the Via Verde is an 80 mile bike path running through the endless olive groves. Spread all throughout the olive groves are ruins that look like this:
Some look like factories, others look like plantation homes, but they are all abandoned. Like REALLY abandoned, the roofs are gone, the walls are collapsing, there are no roads leading to them, or if there were they have long since been planted over with olive trees. There aren’t just a few of these either. There is a ruin on pretty much any halfway decent hill. So far, it’s a mystery. Someday we will get closer to one of them, and maybe it’ll answer some questions.
We don’t know for sure, but we have heard that you can walk into one of the factories and buy a five liter canister of pure fresh olive oil for 20 euro. Maybe we will sometime in the future, just to see if we can. And then we can make a blog titled something like “basic and advanced home repairs with olive oil” since things keep falling apart in our janky apartment, which is a story for another time all in itself.