In two small corners of Spain, one straddling three Autonomous Communities (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia), the other on the border of the provinces of Castellón and Teruel, there are two areas, the first named Territorio del Senia and the other named Maestrazgo (Teruel) or Baix Maestrat (Castellón), whose richness is exceptional. These are olive trees, old thousand-year-old olive trees of the indigenous and traditional variety called Farga.
Yet that wealth was about to disappear in the 2000s, because the olive oil market becoming more and more difficult, farmers, owners of these real historical monuments, were tempted to tear them out, to convert their production to newer, more productive varieties and methods, or even revert to other productions.
Fortunately, before everything was torn out, two collectives were created to save as much olive trees as possible.
Trees having a circumference of at least 3.50 m measured at 1.30 m from the soil, have approximately 1000 years, those having a circumference of 6 m or more are about 2000 years. Some reach a circumference greater than 9 meters. In short, the whole history of Spain experienced by these trees.
The number of identified trees is of a little more than 4000 individuals in each of the two zones. This is both a lot and very little.
To preserve them, so that farmers can live in dignity, demanding production protocols were established, in order to make the extracted oil, an exceptional product, as deserve these exceptional trees. The work is completely manual, to provide the best care for these venerable ancestors of our present agriculture.
Just see (here you will also find testimonials from chefs on oil quality)
Obviously, several brands have embarked on an opportunistic marketing, offering olive oil from 500 years, 1,000 years or 2,000 years’ trees. But hey, I can’t blame them. If the specifications are met, and that this is a way to save both an exceptional heritage and traditional agriculture, in rather poor rural areas, so I applaud.
The idea is good and the safeguarding is running.
It is also a tribute to all those generations of farmers who have been able to maintain, care for and transmit this heritage during centuries.
The oil is expensive, of course, but it is produced in a very traditional way, and above all, it has a small historic flavor that gives it a unique character.
By the way, this is not an advert, but I just find that the initiative is interesting and deserves to be known. And if, with this post, I help them to improve a bit their sales, I will have the satisfaction of having participated a little in this beautiful project.
Spain is one of the European countries that have been relatively unspoilt by the great cold wave of 1956, which killed almost all the olive trees, particularly in France and northern Italy. This leaves a lot of ancient trees across the country, but nowhere as numerous and concentrated than in the Maestrazgo or Sénia.
But these isolated ancient trees have found another fate in recent years, far less romantic. The housing bubble of the 2000s in Spain has caused massive uprooting of olive trees that were in areas becoming urbanized. Many were simply burnt, sometimes sawed up for making firewood.
But a fashion was then established: the sale of whole big trees for gardens, around the world. The olive tree is a tree that bears generally well transplantation, if the job is well done. And thousand-year-old olive tree has become an object of speculation. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, the urban justification has fizzled, and the trees have simply become goods to satisfy the whims of rich people. The housing bubble exploded, Spain entered a deep and lasting crisis, but the ancient trees continue to have a quite lucrative market. A French millionaire spent € 64 000 for a thousand-year-old olive tree from Portugal.
Websites for thousand-year-old olive trees purchases are numerous on the internet.
But transplant a thousand-year-old tree does not happen as easily as a tree of few decades. And many of these venerable alive remains do not survive the operation. This historic, cultural and agricultural heritage is being largely destroyed by these juicy practices.
A petition is currently circulating. Indeed, in Spain, only Valencia has introduced a legislation to preserve them. I suggest you sign it, if you think like me, that this heritage is exceptional and worth preserving.
By the way, what's a modern culture of the olive tree?
A major problem of the olive tree is the cost of harvesting. The fruit is small, the tree is large, so we need to use ladders, and with the hourly labor rates, the kilo of olives is very expensive. But when you know that it takes on average 5 kilos of olives to extract 1 liter of oil, it is necessarily an expensive production, which is not always paid to the farmer at a sufficient price. He must look for ways to cut costs in order to have a better chance to live from his crop.
Here is a small series of four videos taken from the Internet, which illustrate the harvesting techniques currently used by farmers.
First, the traditional manual harvesting as it is still practiced (but less) here in the Seville region. This technique is still widely used for the table olive, which doesn't support impacts. It is also the one chosen by the two production areas for thousand-year-trees olive oil.
So in recent decades, many people are working on the possibility of mechanized harvesting. Basically, there are three ways of evolution.
The first way simply replaced the worker's hand by a manual vibrator. The floor is covered by a net, the worker vibrates branches one after the other, olives fall on the net which is then picked up. This technique has the advantage to be adapted to any type of trees, whether young, old, with large or misshapen trunks. In addition, it doesn't cause more damage to the canopy that manual harvesting.
The second way, developed over several decades, is the vibrator on the tractor, causing the fall of the fruit, whether on the ground covered by a net, or in a large funnel deployed under the tree. Trees have a traditional training. The technique is well adapted to trunks of up to approximately 40 cm in diameter.
The third way, adapted to trees planted very dense, the template is maintained mechanically, and to form a hedge. The harvester is high-clearance type, over rows of trees, and harvesting is done by bars that vibrate and shake the entire canopy. Older adapted orchards twenty years old.
For my personal taste, mechanization, whatever it is, is always traumatic for the tree. But if I have to choose, I prefer first or second solution that respect the plant in its formation and growth.
Technological prowess, necessary to achieve, design and manufacture these machines are remarkable and admirable. But I have a great respect for the plants, and I always feel that these big machines are a kind of abuse. This is probably my romantic side.
But the democratization of a product such as olive oil, whose benefits are established, and the improvement of social conditions, so wages, inevitably leads to these techniques.
And the lure of easy money destroyed much of this heritage.
The preservation of these venerable old olive trees just has more merit. These trees are the living memory of 2000 years of development of southern Europe. If they could speak, or if we knew hear them, they would have a lot to teach us.