Spain and Italy: Ancient partners

Photo: Pepe Nieto

As an Expert Olive Oil Taster, I am often asked why Spanish olive oil producers can sell their olive oil to Italy and be resold under an Italian label. The question is often a loaded one of blame and conspiracy as if the Spanish are selling out and the Italians are trying to trick us. Although it may seem this way in a snapshot in time, it is not the complete story.

For the truth, we must delve into ancient Mediterranean history. Although the olive tree was probably first introduced to the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal) by the Phoenicians around the same time that King Solomon walked this Earth, it was thanks to Ancient Rome that the production of olive oil in Iberia began to flourish. It was the Romans who decided that Baetica, now Andalusia, would be the heart and soul of olive oil production for their empire. During the first and second centuries AD the estimated annual yields for Baetica were between 20 and 100 million liters. Rome´s Monte Tesaccio, a pile of 40 million olive oil amphorae primarily originating from Baetica, attest to its importance.

Keeping with tradition, Spain had relied heavily on Italy for its exports up until only recently. However, this ancient partnership seems to now be coming to a close. Spain is currently the number one producer in the world for olive oil, producing 3.7 times that of Italy. With the roots of 282,696,000 trees firmly planted in its soil, its culture and its economy, Spain overtook Italy in 2014 as the top exporter to the United States and Japan. This was an important accomplishment that helped turn the tables that had for so long been tied to the past.

Spain was able to achieve this in part by lessons learned from Italian culture, practices, and commerce. However, the bulk of the credit is due to the hard work of producers, chefs, scientists, Denomination of Origins, farmers, institutions, cooperatives, and sheep (used as part of a biodynamic method) and the collaboration between them.

Last year more than half of the total winners in the World´s Best Olive Oils were Spanish. Some of these included: Venta del Baron, Rincón de la Subbetica, Oro del Desierto, Oro Bailen, Finca la Torre, Casas del Hualdo, Masia el Altet and Cortijo Spiritu Santo.

We are now in competition season where top tasters all over the world will be deciding who are the winners for this year´s harvest. Will Spain keep on top of its game?

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