Arbequina olives are just one of the eight most coveted Spanish varieties used to make olive oil.
Question: Olive trees were first grown in Greece and proliferated by the Romans—but the world’s largest producer of olive oil is neither Greece nor Italy. Where is it?
Even more surprising than Spain’s rank as the world’s #1 producer of olive oil is the margin by which it wins out: Spain produces more than twice as much oil as Italy and four times as much as Greece. In fact, the Andalusian province of Jaen alone, which is responsible for 70% of Spanish olive oil, cranks out more per year than the entire country of Italy.
Spain exports around 40% of its oil, so the next time you’re in the supermarket, pay close attention to labels: There’s a good chance that your oil, despite its Italian-sounding brand name, actually came from Spain. Not that this is a bad thing. Spain has made impressive advances in their growing and production processes, ensuring that fruits are picked at the peak of ripeness and treated carefully so as not to impact the flavor of the flesh. The resulting oils are pure and nuanced, retaining the original character of the olive itself.
Of the 262 varieties of olives grown in Spain, 24 are suitable for oil, and of these, eight types are considered most important: Arbequina, Cornicabra, Empeltre, Hojiblanca, Lechin, Picual, Picudo, and Verdial. Which type is best? It depends on your taste. Picual is the most popular, with its fresh flavor and a high enough smoke point for frying. Cornicabra is sweet and fruity. And Arbequina has a slight bitterness that the Spanish particularly enjoy.
Whichever you prefer, you’ll find that Spanish cuisine is adept at showcasing the ingredient the Romans referred to as “liquid gold.”
5 Delicious Ways to Enjoy Olive Oil in Spain
- Tomato bread (Pan con tomate): All you need to prepare this beloved Spanish snack is toasted bread, garlic, a ripe tomato, salt, and a healthy drizzle of olive oil—deceptively simple ingredients that marry into an explosively flavorful bite, similar to Italian bruschetta but with crushed tomato pulp instead of chopped. The Spanish enjoy tomato bread at any time of day, either on its own for breakfast, as a mid-afternoon snack, or an accompaniment to dinner.
- Garlic and oil sauce (Allioli): Another celebration of simplicity, this sauce of garlic, olive oil, salt, and lemon juice is served all over Spain alongside grilled meat and fish. It has the consistency of mayonnaise, but contains no egg yolks—a feat accomplished painstakingly by hand in a mortar and pestle.
- Gazpacho: While there are countless variations on this classic chilled soup, the basic recipe includes bread, tomato, garlic, onions, peppers, vinegar, and good olive oil. The oil lends both flavor and a creamy consistency—enough to cause some diners to attribute it to actual cream. The emulsion of the oil and the bread lightens the red color of the tomatoes to a pinkish-orange hue.
- Garlic shrimp (Gambas al ajillo): This quintessential Spanish tapa features shrimp cooked to tender perfection in a bath of olive oil and garlic, and finished with red pepper and parsley. Traditionally, the dish is cooked over fire in an earthenware vessel that still sizzles when it reaches the table. You’ll want plenty of crusty bread for dipping.
- Olive oil cake (Bizcocho de aceite de oliva): You can find versions of this cake that highlight other classic Spanish ingredients, like almonds or citrus (or both). But the olive oil is truly the star, lending a luxuriously moist texture. Most recipes are only subtly sweet, allowing the flavor of the oil to come through.
Sample Spain’s fine olive oil for yourself when you join Grand Circle Cruise Line’s Iberian Voyage: Lisbon to Barcelona Small Ship Adventure. Explore some of Seville’s culinary specialties in this film:
Courtesy of CNN