History of Spanish Olives

Today Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olives and olive oil, with vast swathes of olive groves spreading over southern Spain, especially Andalusia.

It was the Phoenicians who first brought the olive tree to Spain, but the Ancient Romans are credited with establishing vast farms of olives, often owned by absentee landlords who lived back in Rome. Although Italy produced its own olives, the Romans relied on Spain as a major supplier of olive oil to the Empire.

At this period green and black olives were cured in salt or brine and eaten both at grand Roman banquets as appetizers and by the common man as a breakfast snack with a hunk of bread.

The Moorish invasion of Spain in the 8th century AD developed and sustained the olive industry in Southern Spain, as it declined in many other parts of the former Roman Empire, introducing new varieties and production methods. 800 years later when the last of the Moors left Spain and it was ruled by Catholic kings, a taste for olive oil was considered to indicate suspicious sympathies for the old regime and lard was re-established as the principle cooking fat in all but the southern regions of Spain.

A handful of olives continued to be a common snack throughout the centuries in Southern Spain. When the tradition of tapas was born, as a snack to accompany a glass of wine in between meals, the first and simplest tapas would have been a slice of bread with a few olives, or a slice of ham.

Olive production in Spain suffered a set-back in the 1970’s, when soya bean oil was promoted by the state as a modern alternative and many ancient olive groves were ripped out to grow this new crop. Towards the end of the decade the re-discovery of the medical benefits of olive oil restored it to favour and now the olive industry in Spain is flourishing again, even exporting considerable quantities of oil to Italy as it did in the time of the Roman Empire.

As the popularity of tapas has spread beyond the borders of Spain, so has the demand for genuine Spanish olives, which are now exported to discerning customers all over the world.