Tag Archives: Olives

THE FUTURE IS OLIVE

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I’m now a signed up socio, along with around 700 other local farmers, of Nuestra Señora del Rosario cooperative olive mill. It’s a great Heath Robinson type affair, and since taking these pictures has once again become the bustling centre of all activity, lorries and vans getting all snarled up around the entrance gates, much back-slapping and high-fiving, and catching up. I’ve sent around 600kg of olives up the conveyor belt so far, but have around another 1400 kgs to pick. So I’d better get on.

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The Future is Olive

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This is an olive farm among olive farms in the very region that produces more olive oil than anywhere else in the world. As a matter of fact, much of that ‘Italian’ virgin oil comes from right here although you might need a barcode scanner or a magnifying glass to see that.

For most of the year the olive trees are basically iconic scenery, dotted lines across the bald straw coloured hillsides, left to their own devices. From now through to January they are the centre of attention.

About a month ago during one of our over the fence evening chats Fernando suggested I might want to start pruning my trees which looked like thick shrubs. He demonstrated and made it look pretty easy. Obviously when he handed me the clippers I couldn’t work out which shoot started where or cut through them even with two hands on the clippers. Just cut off anything that’s growing vertically, he said. That’s how you end up with the big open space at the centre that lets light and heat in over the winter. I now know I have 300 and something trees, and that some of them are easier to get up than down from. I’m pretty handy with a saw, my hands have changed shape – fat paddles – and are covered in callouses; my ring will be on for life.

The trees however look quite good, and when I go past an olivar that’s been neglected, my sawing and clipping hand gives a twitch. Maybe if journalism dries up this is a new career path.

On the 20th of October, two weeks ahead of schedule because of the spring drought, the conveyor belts at Nuestra Señora del Rosario co-operative olive press started rolling. Farmers have been showing up in their pick-ups to tip sacks of olives through the grates and a couple of weeks on the place now smells of squashed olives again, and will do through to January. You can drop off as little as kilo or a lorryload; price depends on quality. I often come here, not selling olives unfortunately, (according to Andalucian law this year’s crop belongs to the farmer that owned the land and tended them up to May last year) but spending cash. The co-op has a store where you can buy shovel handles, chicken wire, and cement mix, as well as cheese, water, and washing-up liquid, which is convenient. Sometimes I browse in the overalls section. Not Selfridges, but it will have to suffice.

Meanwhile Fernando and his cousin Fernando are in his fields higher up the hill bashing branches with a stick so the olives collect in the nets they’ve spread right around the base of the tree. He has around 850 trees to go. Arturo and Rosi and the in-laws are doing the same in the fields below. With the tock tock tock of wood from all directions it sounds like a jousting tournament. Not that I’ve been to a jousting tournament. Anyway, jousting, goat bells, cockerels, a lot of birds (gone wild after the rain), and barking dogs.

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Prepare Your Own Olives in Just 18 days, 9 hrs

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You know those olives you can buy ready to eat from any deli? Well, you can make them yourself for free in just 18 days and 9 hours. Ismael and his father have just spent five days harvesting most of the olives and taken the last sackload to the co-op for pressing, but I did shake and bat the olives off the old manzanilla olive tree by the bathroom. My former neighbour Mari had cornered me in Zahara the week before and asked if I’d made my aceitunas de mesa. I said I hadn’t (thinking, damn, more stuff I need to do) and she gripped my arm and gave me detailed instructions on how to do it, along with a Tupperware tub of ones she had made earlier. Mari is a keen smoker; her olives were powerful stuff.

Anyway, we collected around 25kg, which is plenty enough to go with a glass of wine. For several hours afterwards I sat in the garage while it rained and less enthusiastically sorted through them, chucking out any that looked too black or too green, then whacking the chosen ones with the base of a wine bottle to mash them up a bit. (Diego in the ferreteria had a basic machine for doing this, but he wouldn’t sell it, saying it was rubbish and a waste of money, even though I really wanted it).

What you are supposed to do at this stage depends on who you ask. You definitely have to soak them, but some say in salt water, others, just water. Some say leave them in the same water for the first three days, others say change the water every day from day 1. Some say leave them for two weeks, others for three weeks. Everyone says put a lid or a plate or something on top of the olives so they are completely submerged, which, ironically, is the one thing I forgot to do.

These are the steps I took:

  1. Changed the (unsalted) water every day for 18 days, then drained the olives, and hauled them into the kitchen to bottle them.
  2. (If you are dealing in less industrial quantities, maybe soak them in vinegar for a couple more days).
  3. Made some brine. I used litre bottles, first putting in a couple of big tablespoons of salt dissolved in boiling water, then topping the water up to just under 2/3 full. Threw in a bit of sugar, and then filled to the top with vinegar, and shook it all about.
  4. I then set about lighting a fire and boiling a couple of dozen jars six at a time, for 10 minutes of rollicking boiling, in a large pail to sterilise them, dropping in the lids at the end. (You can skip this four hour stage if you have an oven, or a dishwasher.)
  5. About this stage in the process I lost all interest in bottling olives. After all it’s not like they’re going to run out of them in Cádiz.
  6. However, I continued, and ladled in the stinking olive slosh, making sure to pack them in well, then stuck in garlic and chilli, and poured in the brine to the very, very top, and stuck on the lid. Job done.

As I say, only took 18 days and 9 hours.

Aside from present Mari with a return offering, I have no idea what to do with all this. People are sick of olives round here. I’m hoping to have a lot of guests around Christmas who regard olives as interesting and exotic. Unfortunately they’ll need to be time-travellers from 1970s Britain.

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Up the Hill to Grazalema

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I’m currently living in a rented flat in olive country. If I could see through the tiled roof opposite, I’d be looking at a smooth dome with rows of olives down it, and bigger ones in all directions. Most villagers here have olivars – olive groves, and most have walked me through them in case I’d like to build a house on one. I burn olive tree off-cuts, get olives with €1 wine (glass, not bottle – that’s €2), eat cake made with olive oil and, now it’s no longer prohibitively expensive (Waitrose), douse all salads in olive oil from the local cooperative olive press. When I first saw this place it was sizzling in the heat and loud with cicadas and the villagers only came out after dark (or to swim). Even though it is now a confusing 10 degrees celsius, it still looks and feels like Southern Europe for Beginners.

Up the hill behind us is another kind of country. An Alpine country. The village lies on the northern edge of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, most of which is higher up, and constructed out of crags, gullies and giant gorges, spongy vibrant meadows and forests of pine and Spanish fir. It covers around 51,700 hectares, and is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, famous for the big things in it, such as the highest peak in Cadiz – El Torreón, 1654m, the biggest cave system in Andalucia, a very big gorge with 400m walls, and some velociraptor-sized  birds, the Griffon vultures, which soar above it in search of lost children. It also gets 2.2m of rain a year to keep it nice and damp. Wild boar, ibex and deer thrive here, as do the inhabitants of a smattering of white villages: Cortes de la Frontera, Grazalema, Montjaque, Benahoma, and El Bosque, as well as Zahara de la Sierra.

Grazalema is theoretically the neighbouring village, some 350m up, and reached by zig-zagging around vertical rock faces on a buttressed road up through the Puerto de los Palomas (a Tour de Spain climb). Expect a few near misses with traffic coming the other way, slight nausea, and distracting fine views.  Like most places round here it was settled by Romans, then occupied by Berber Arabs who were driven out by Christians. Quite a long time later it was sacked by Napoleonic troops, and nowadays it’s popular with tourists, local and foreign, who come here to escape from the heat in summer, marvel at the snow in winter, and hike steep, boulder strewn trails to Narnia valleys. 

The village has the advantage of being popular with tourists without being touristy, by which I mean people come here to see life as it is lived without wishing it were different and the menus were in English. There is accommodation, and camping (which is almost accommodation), and a tourist office, but aside from that few concessions made. Many of the German, Dutch, French and English sitting out in the plaza turn out to be residents, doing art or working remotely and living in nicely restored terraced properties with great big wooden doors and rough beams which are slightly above my price range. They tend to look pretty pleased with their lot.

Anyway it is useful to have Grazalema, a quintessential mountain retreat just up there above olive country for whenever you want to feel just that little bit colder. We go up there on Sundays, along with half of Ronda – Ronda not Cwm Rondda – ostensibly to hike, but mainly to eat. You can see stuff that you don’t get to see down below like fur gilets, gloves, thermal clothing and fine blankets and capes made from wool spun in the local mill. When the sun is blindingly brilliant, the plaza and cobbled mini-square are crammed with tables, dogs, children, and people in an approximation of apres-ski wear. When the streets are in shadow, queues form for tables by the open fire inside old restaurants with stag heads mounted on the walls, and we all eat boar, venison, partridge and rabbit from thereabouts.

A couple of Sundays ago we hiked from Grazalema up and around the Endrinal Valley on a walk mapped out by Tony Bishop in Walking in the Ronda Mountains. I’ve got to be honest, I chose it because it looked quick and short. It took bloody ages, and I thought I was going to be sick on the way up, but I was deliriously happy on the descent and for that I highly recommend it. Although not right now because there is snow glinting in the Pinsapar.

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