Yesterday we left the olive farmer at the point where he was trying to decide when to harvest his olive tree. Of course, he has owned any particular tree for decades (or his family has), so he has a good idea of what its performance will be. On the other hand, there are seasonal variations in weather that must be considered. If he decides to go for olive oil, the factory requires that he bring in at least 500 kilos before they turn on the machines for his cargo. That means eight trees on the average must be harvested at the same time.
Once the decision is made, the olives must be forced to drop from the tree. Picking 150 pounds of olives one by one is not practical. In the old days, the farmer used a sturdy piece of wood to whack away at the branches, until most of the olives fell. They placed a net around the tree trunk, much like an apron. This process will damage quite a few grapes, rendering them unusable to sell as food. These days they have machines that spread a net around the tree trunk, after which they apply a few sturdy blows to the trunk. What used to take five people and an hour takes two humans and minutes.
We should discuss labor as an aside. Even when machines are used, this job is difficult. We already discussed that the harvest only lasts four to five months. Which means that able-bodied young men and women are hesitant to accept this kind of work as a career. Workers were recruited from northern Africa, but olive grove owners still had to comply with European Union standards for wages and safety precautions. Undocumented workers have been recruited (does this sound familiar?). I do not know how prevalent this practice is, or whether it presents a problem.
I was told that the EU decided to subsidize olive harvest labor. In other words, any EU citizen can harvest olives for a few months and get paid a year’s worth of salary. I am told that many of them manage to find side jobs the rest of the year, and that they do well. I have not independently confirmed this information.
Once the olives are picked, they go two different routes. The ones destined to end up in a martini glass, or your salad, must be treated in order to remove a chemical that makes them bitter and inedible. Most of the time this is a lye solution. After a certain time, the lye is washed off (several times) and they are placed in brine. Some olives are pitted and stuffed with garlic, tuna, and many other things. No, a human being does not suck the pit out. This is done by machine: I have no idea how.
If the olive’s fate is to end up as oil, they are taken to an oil factory. The farmer has a choice between selling his cargo outright (after all the leaves and branches are removed by still another machine), or he/she can pay a fee, per kilo of olive, for turning his harvest into oil. The process of collecting and refining this stuff is fascinating.
It takes no more than thirty minutes for the farmer to leave with the oil collected. The olive pits are crushed and used as fuel. The “skin” of the olive is used to feed horses. The discarded leaves and branches are also fed to livestock. Nothing goes to waste.
The first round of oil extracted qualifies as “virgin” oil. To be “extra virgin,” the acid content must be below a certain standard. Other quality requirements must be met. The European Union, and the exporting countries, need to deal with dishonest manufacturers who adulterate the finished product and make false claims on its label. This thievery continues to be a problem.
The best grades of oil are as varied as fine wines. Thy must be tasted at a certain temperature. They can be unfiltered, cold filtered, and refined in endless ways. We tasted four oils. Each had a different consistency; taste; aftertaste. Some are spicy. It is mind-boggling.
The lower grades of oil do not go to waste (nothing does). The next few “squeezes” after virgin oil are used for cooking, and the last remaining drops are sold as fuel for lamps.
What to buy? It is best to deal with a trusted store that knows what they are selling. My guess is that a large retailer like Costco does not lie to you when they label their product as “extra virgin.” This is a guess. On the other hand, there is a vast difference between what Costco sells and what we tasted (and bought). Once you put great oil in your salad or use it to dip your bread in it (some people add salt and pepper), you will never go back.
The demand seems to be endless. When I get a few miles outside Málaga, there are new trees being planted as far as my eyes can see. The health benefits are unquestioned. The latest iteration of the ideal diet features the usual grains, fruits, and nuts. It adds “unlimited extra virgin olive oil” as the concluding sentence.
One of our expat friends in Málaga has lowered her total cholesterol by 50 points since she moved to Spain. We no longer eat as we did in the US, and we miss nothing. We have been here a month. I have eaten two meatballs and no other beef. I ate rabbit and goat once (separate instances). My food tastes better. I sleep better.
I promise that I will not discuss food or oil for a long time. I urge all of you to add Spanish olive oil to your “daily bread.” Walk a lot. Love your family. Take a deep breath. Live in beauty.