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Olive Oil in Spain: the Romans started it…

The Romans started it? Really?

olive trees from 13th century with olive grove behind

A pair of 13th century olive trees, Medinat Al-Zahara, Spain

My post title is a bit of an exaggeration, I admit. Southern Spain had been growing olives and making olive oil long before the Romans arrived. (I posted about the first Roman city in Spain in a recent blog.)

But the Romans turned olive oil into an enormous industry. It’s an industry that still continues today. Drive through Andalucia and you will see mile after mile of olive trees. Nothing but olives. Mostly not nearly as old as the ones in my picture here, though olive trees can live for millennia.

Olives as monoculture

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

It’s a monoculture. With all the risks that monoculture brings. Of course, it can bring great prosperity if the product is in demand—there was huge demand for olive oil in the Roman Empire and there still is, worldwide—but that monoculture is vulnerable to weather, to disease, and to pests.

Remember what happened to French wine as a result of phylloxera in the mid-19th century? Growers wonder whether the same, or worse, will happen as a result of new diseases, especially Olive Quick Decline Syndrome spread by insects. OQDS has been in Italy for the last 10 years or so and has recently been detected in Spain and Greece. Those 3 countries plus Portugal produce about two-thirds of the world’s olive oil. Spain is by far the biggest producer, with between a third and half the total.

olive oil with Italian label

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

As a cynical aside, I was told that in the USA, people don’t buy Spanish olive oil. They buy Italian oil. (All those Italian immigrants?) So a very large amount of Spanish olive oil is shipped in bulk to Italy for bottling. It is then sold as “olive oil bottled in Italy” or “imported from Italy” which allows buyers to assume they are buying olive oil grown in Italy. Looking at the figures, I can well believe it, since Spain produces 4 or 5 times as much as Italy does.

Romans needed olive oil for…?

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