I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the importance of olive oil in Spain. It’s added to moisturizing lotion and shower gel; it appears in bread and baked goods and even chocolate; it’s the preferred oil for cooking; and it’s what Spaniards normally put on bread (butter? no).
Twenty-percent of the world’s olive oil supply comes from Spain, and more than half of that from Andalucía. Driving north or west from Granada the hillsides are covered with neat rows of olive trees that stretch on and on, only occasionally interrupted by an oil cooperative or a farmstead or a town.
The harvest—which is carried out between November and the end of January—involves laying a tarp under a tree, then shaking branches or the trunk vigorously with a machine to cause the olives to drop. The collected olives are hauled to a press where the oil is extracted or, if they’re going to be sold whole, the olives go through a soaking process to remove the bitterness before they are brined and packaged. I think there are also efforts to capture additional value from the oil-making process, for example by burning olive pits to generate energy.
Although olive trees are incredibly hardy, they require mild temperatures in May in order to bloom fully. The pollen from the yellow flowers causes such a strong reaction in people who are allergic that we can expect to see some Granadinos wearing breathing masks outside when the pollen count is high.
Every two years growers cut tree branches back to the trunk to foment growth of new, olive-producing branches. Some of the cut branches get bundled and sold as firewood or are used for wooden handicrafts, but enough of them are burned in the open that I may need my own breathing mask (cough, wheeze) before pollen season. Because the trees tolerate drought, heat and cold, and poor soil, they can live for hundreds of years. We’ve been told that there are trees in Andalucía that are at least 2,000 years old.
The Granada science museum recently held a two-hour oil-tasting class to learn how different varieties of olive trees and different growing conditions produce different flavors. I’m sorry I missed it!