With Spanish National Day today, we’re taking a look at Spanish Olives. Typically pictured as large olives stuffed with peppers, Spanish olives vary in colour from green to black and by region, but did you know that Spanish olives only differ from other olives by their preparation?

Spanish-style olives are actually European olives, or Olea europaea, and a traditional method of curing and fermentation is used to prepare them. While olives grow across the Mediterranean region, Spain is the largest producer of olives and around 60% of the world’s table olives are prepared with the Spanish method!

Faiths and Cultures:

Olives have been significant across cultures, faiths, and through history. With appearances in the Bible and the Quran, olive trees are seen as blessed symbols of fruitfulness and peace. In the Bible, an olive branch was given to Noah to signify the end of the floods, and symbolises peace. In Judaism, olive trees represent the putting down of roots and light, as olive oil was used to light the Menorah, and olive branches are included in the emblem of the State of Israel.

Fossil evidence suggests that olive trees have existed for 20 - 40 million years with origins in Italy. As one of the oldest plants in the world, olives have been cultivated since 3000 BC, at the start of the Bronze Age. Olive oil production dates back 6500 years from its origins in Israel, and has been produced in Spain for over 3000 years. However, olives have been cultivated in Spain for even longer, and began to increase after the Roman invasion of Hispania in 212 BC!

Olives were introduced to the Americas even later, when they were brought over by Spanish colonists. The first cultivation of olives began in Lima in 1560, and had spread to California by the mid 1790s.

Medicinal Uses:

Olives, and especially olive oils, have been used in traditional medicines since the Ancient Greeks used olive oil for bodily health. In fact, olive oil has been used to treat a range of diseases and conditions, including constipation, high cholesterol and blood pressure, jaundice, and to reduce gum disease. Olive oil has also been used topically (on skin) to treat tinnitus, ear pain, lice, and as a kind of sunscreen to protect skin from UV damage. Oil has also been combined with ozone gas and is promoted to treat insect bites and stings, bacterial and fungal skin infections, and even cancer!

Olive leaves have also been used to combat a range of conditions, including influenza, shingles, HIV/AIDS, and other viral and bacterial infections, as well as pneumonia, fever, and malaria. In East Africa, an infusion of olive tree bark is still used to treat tapeworm infections.

While current research is attempting to validate the effectiveness of these traditional medicines, there is presently insufficient evidence for the effectiveness of olive oil for most uses. It may be effective in treating diabetes, colorectal and breast cancer, and in reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol. This may be due to the presence of fatty acids in the oil, which may have anti-inflammatory effects. Olive oil has also been found to reduce blood sugar, which may interact with diabetes medication. In some individuals, consuming olive oil may also cause nausea, while skin contact can cause dermatitis so it’s always best to consult your medical practitioner before starting use of it in a medicinal sense.

Culinary Uses:

The most popular use of olives is in cooking, from salads, breads to pizza toppings, and even in a simple marinade. There are two types of olives: table olives that are used in cooking, and bitter olives that are used in olive oil, and only 10% of harvested olives are table olives!

Spanish olives are prepared in a few days, which is much quicker than other methods, including Greek-style olives. First, the olives are soaked in lye, an alkaline substance used to remove the naturally bitter taste, and are then washed with water and fermented in brine with the help of several species of yeast and lactic acid bacteria, which also protect the olives from pathogenic species.

Spanish olive oil is also heavily used in cooking, with bread dipped or soaked in oil being a particularly popular dish in the Mediterranean. There are lots of varieties of Spanish olive oil that range in colour from golden and clear to murky and yellow-green. Olive oil is also classified by the amount of oleic acid it contains, with virgin and extra-virgin olive oils only containing 2% and 0.8% oleic acid. Non-virgin olive oil has a higher acid content, and is made using oils that can’t be used for virgin olive oils and chemical processes which change the taste, smell, and colour.

Try using Spanish Olives in these great recipes:

Olives a la Madrilene, The Spruce Eats

Spanish Olive & Chicken & Rice, Dinner Then Dessert

Marinated lamb chops with baked potatoes and apples, The Guardian

Gardening Facts:

As a hardy, drought and frost-resistant tree, olive trees thrive in climates similar to that of the Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and cool winters. Olive trees can also grow well in temperate and coastal areas, and prefer spots protected from strong winds and with exposure to at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Olive trees also produce better fruit if well-watered, and with their evergreen, silver foliage and creamy white flowers they can be used as topiaries, hedges or espaliers.

Olive trees are slow growing plants that can live for hundreds of years and only start to produce fruit after 4 to 5 years. The oldest known trees have been found to be anywhere from 100 to 2000 years old, and one tree in Catalona, Spain, has been estimated to have been planted in 314 A.D. during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine!

Happy growing, cooking and eating!