Today, David shares the history of Spanish olives, which are quite possibly Spain’s most important fruit!
I didn’t like olives when I moved to Spain.
As a kid, I’d always thought that they were too bitter, too salty, too gross! If they were on a pizza, I picked them off. If they were in a bowl, I pushed it away. So when I moved to Spain, I figured they were just something I’d avoid ordering.
When I moved to Seville, I decided that I’d just continue to avoid olives in my day-to-day life. But it turns out that in Spain, that’s pretty much impossible! These babies are everywhere. Locals chow down on olives at any time of the day or night, and it’s weird to go a day without ingesting olives in some way, whether whole or in oil form.
I quickly learned that if I wanted to stay in Spain, I would have to get used to olives! If I was lucky, I thought, I’d even start to enjoy them.
Five years later, olives are now one of my favorite foods! They’re my favorite snack, and if I could only eat olives and nothing else, I think I’d live a happy life.
But why are olives in Spain so… everywhere? Are there different types of Spanish olives, and if so, which types are best? And most importantly, how do you eat them like a local?
Today I’m going to answer all of your questions about Spanish olives. So let’s dive in!
Olives and Spain, the Classic Combination
Spain has loved olives for longer than most places. The first olive trees were brought to Spain more than 3,000 years ago by the travel-loving Phoenicians, the same people who supplied Spain with its first grapes! Clearly, we have a lot to thank them for.
From their home in modern-day Lebanon, the Phoenicians spread the trees throughout the Mediterranean. In Spain, the first trees were planted in southern Andalusia, which is still the home of Spanish olives today! Andalusia produces more than half of the country’s supply of olives, and bulk of its olive oil too.
And that’s no mean feat, given how many olives Spain grows! Not content with just growing them, Spain also wants to share its love of olives with the world. Today, more than half of the planet’s olive oil comes from Spain.
Under the Romans, olives continued to flourish, though they were mainly used to make oil to be shipped around the empire. Olive trees live a long time, and some of the Roman olive trees are still producing fruit today!
When the Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century, they prized olives and olive oil among the best foods in the country. Today, the Spanish word for oil, aceite, is derived from the Arabic word for olive juice: al-zait. By the time the Christians expelled the Moors from the country in 1492, the dominion of olives in the Spanish diet was cemented.
Spanish Olives: The Ones to Know
But what Spanish olives are best?
In a country that has as a type of olive for almost every day of the year, how do you know which one to choose? In reality, you don’t always have a choice. Most bars only have one type of olive that they serve to their customers. But if you’re going to be buying your Spanish olives in bulk, there are a few you should look out for.
One of the most common varieties in the country is the manzanilla olive. It’s most common in the south, where most cities have their own local styles and sub-breeds. They’re fleshy and meaty, with a mild and not too bitter flavor. Commonly marinated with wild herbs, they’re a great snack, and go perfectly with a glass of crisp fino sherry!
Their all-round appeal also makes them one of Lauren’s olives for people who don’t like olives!
If you’re looking for olives with a kick, then hojiblancas are for you. These olives have thicker skin than most varieties, giving them a sharp and spicy note. As well as being a great snack, the oil from these olives is famous for its peppery, nutty flavor.
Gordal (or “fat”) olives are named for their overly large size. At around 6 grams each, they’re one of the biggest olives in Spain! They’re even meatier than the manzanilla variety, and are perfect for stuffing. If you like your olives with a bit of cheese or pickled peppers inside, you’ll be right at home with a gordal.
Campo Real Olives
This variety is most commonly grown around Madrid, and is one of the most popular olives in the capital. Their thin skins mean that the flavor is pretty mild, making it perfect for marinades! You’ll find Campo Real olives seasoned with an aromatic brine of fennel, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, and cumin. They’re a must-try olive while in Madrid.
The cacereña olive is a bit different from the others. Unlike other Spanish olives, these are left to ripen on the tree until they’ve gone completely black. As the olives oxidize, they lose their distinctive green color, as well as their bitter and vegetal flavors.
As such, these olives have a rounder, sweeter flavor, and go perfectly with the saltiness of their brine.
Are you one of those people who love bitter flavors? If so, you’ll want to try out some malagueña olives when you’re in Spain. These meaty olives from Malaga are smashed open before curing, to help the brine get deep into the fruit. The curing process is sped up, and the aromatic flavors are stronger than usual! This is a Spanish olive that packs a punch.
These small black olives from Spain’s eastern coast can be hard to find. They’re really only served where they’re grown, in the area around southern Aragón and Catalonia. But if you can get your hands on them, you’re in for a treat. Another example of an oxidized olive, these babies can be addictively sweet and nutty!
How to Eat Spanish Olives Like a Local
Now you know which Spanish olives to try, how exactly should you eat them?
I don’t mean the perfect way to chew them, but the best way to eat them like a true Spaniard! Locals eat olives as a snack or simple appetizer. In most parts of Spain, you’ll often get a small tapa of olives for free along with your glass of beer or wine! They’re the perfect way to start a meal, or a great salty snack to contrast a cold beer or fino sherry.
In southern parts of the country, olives are also used as an ingredient in plenty of salads and simple tapas dishes. I’m a massive fan of an ensalada malagueña—a typical Malaga salad with salted cod, onions, potato, black olives, and orange segments.
Meanwhile, in the north, locals go nuts for a Gilda. These skewers of green olives, pickled peppers, and salted anchovies are the pintxo of choice for bar-hoppers in the Basque Country. Their sharp and salty spiciness makes them the perfect pair for a glass of sweet local vermouth!
What’s your favorite type of Spanish olive? Let me know in the comments below! Do you prefer your olives by themselves on in a particular tapas dish?
If you’re interested in eating more Spanish olive oil, why not check out Lauren’s recipe for Spanish olive oil cake with apple?