Olive Oil

Olive Oil – that most ancient of liquors

Photo – España Es Cultura

Pic – España Es Cultura

It is currently thought that olive oil was produced domestically around the Mediterranean as early as 2500 BC.

Squeezed and drawn from the green and purplish fruit that hang in pendulous bunches amidst silver-green leaves, this golden green liquor has long been used in cuisine all around the Mediterranean basin. Gnarled trees, some with trunks greater than a metre across, are still farmed today while others, younger, stand in serried ranks spread over hill and dale, clearly evincing the olive’s current commercial importance.

Olive pressing - Morocco

Blindfolded camel olive press Sidi Kacem, Maroc

Spanish – Baetican Olive Oil and the Amphorae
While olive oil is produced by most countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, one country stands out for the sheer volume of its oil production and widespread distribution – Spain – and it has long been so.

As part of the Roman struggle against Carthage, they invaded the Iberian peninsula in 206 BC. Scipio Africanus was victorious at Alcalá del Rio near present day Seville and founded the city Italica and his army crushed the resistance of the native Iberians and soon transformed Andalucia (Baetica) into one of Rome’s richest and best organised colonies. Cadiz became Roman in 200 BC. The Romans remained for 700 years.(Ref: andalucia.com/history/romans)

Baetica was the Roman Empire’s southernmost (and earliest) province in their eventual colonisation of the whole Iberian Peninsula. Its capital was Corduba (Cordoba), situated on the River Baetis (now the Guadalquivir). The region, with both the Guadalquivir and Guadiana Rivers flowing through it, was already agriculturally rich and the Romans took full advantage of this.

The Roman Empire was expanding at a rapid pace; they had a huge war machine to maintain and it was olive oil, figuratively speaking, that ‘oiled the wheels’ of their massive enterprise. It was an indispensable condiment, fuel and cooking oil. Under their reign olive production in the bountiful soils of Baetica increased extensively, providing a continuing legacy: to this day the region of Andalucia accounts for 75% of Spain’s production of olives and olive oil.

The Amphora
The amphora used for storage and transport of olive oil, wine, and the very popular fermented fish condiment, ‘garum’ to Rome’s far-flung outposts was of a distinctive style: tall, cylindrical with angular shoulders, characteristic bifid handles, a beaded rim, pointed bottom and a longish neck narrower than the body. Its design, though, was a continuum of that of the Greeks before them – the terracotta amphora having been a common household item for millennia.

The Romans already had pottery factories in Italy, Gaul, the Eastern Mediterranean and also southern Britain long before they started and geared-up production in Baetica, Spain. The wine or olive oil amphora was considered a disposable, single-use bulk-carrier item, perhaps because of sediment that accumulated in their bottoms. Demand for the amphora’s continued supply and production was assured.

Amphora on display

Pic: Assorted terracotta amphorae

As olive farming and oil production increased to meet demand so, too, did the need for more amphorae for its transport, and from the archaeological finds it is now certain that millions were manufactured along the shores of the river Baetis alone, in areas where suitable clay was to be found. It was a perfect commercial symbiosis.

There is now conclusive archaeological evidence that the Romans sent regular shipments of olive oil from Baetica to distant provinces such as Volubilis (Mauritania, now Morocco), Israel, the British Isles, Alexandria, Germania and Rome via existing combinations of shipping and land routes. This evidence lies in the numerous amphora remains bearing the distinctive Baetican pottery mark or stamp.


Pic: Typical wine & oil amphora – backtobodrum.blogspot.com.au

These vessels with their tapered and pointed bottoms appear to us to make unlikely containers for the storage of liquids, but the Romans (and Greeks before them) found their shape highly practical. They were perfectly designed to be stacked upright, padded with straw packing and tied in place aboard their wooden-hulled sea-going craft. Those same pointed bases could be tucked down behind fore-and-aft planking in the holds of the vessel, the outer amphorae’s curves snuggling against the curve of the hull. Once ashore, the amphora’s pointed bottom could be pushed into the sand for upright storage and, without a pedestal or flat base, be easily tilted or hefted (with one hand underneath) to discharge its contents.

Like many races before and after them, the Romans may have been ruthless colonisers, but we cannot deny their productivity.

Our own experience with ancient methods of olive oil extraction was during November of 2001 near Sidi Kacem in Morocco (see photo at top) and the raw oil from this direct source was the richest, most aromatic and flavoursome we have ever had: a superb olive oil, quite different to commercial product but not hard to find in that wonderful country. However, it was carried away in plastic containers, unlike the days of yore when clay vessels were the norm.

For those who would like to know more about Spain’s olives this site provides good detail of the varieties grown there:  Olive Oil From Spain

Cordoba, Granada, Bilbao

12th August 2015

Cordoba and Granada are two major jewels in Spain’s crown: Granada has The Alhambra, and Cordoba has The Mezquita (the grand mosque, also built by the Moors). Both are worth doing once in a lifetime and require a full day each – and I’d advise anyone considering it to skip the month of August. Here is a good link that is worth copying and pasting as it gives a brief idea of the history and culture of this area and its Mosque –


I am certainly not one who ticks off tourist sites from a list, but if you are here for the food, wine and scenery you should make the effort to see these two. We did both some ten or so years ago.

But I must say, to be quite honest, (its fabulous mosque and cathedral aside) Cordoba has been a disappointment to us both this time around. The city has changed a lot since we were here – probably a good thing for the locals, but for us it has lost a lot of its charm (unlike Granada). Take the cuisine for example – the bars we ate at were a great disappointment, especially after having come straight from Granada. The quality and range of the lower priced dishes was very poor, and the upper range had the appearance of flashy gastro-gourmet pieces that are best left to 5 star Michelin restaurants. The appeal of Spanish food for us has always been in its simplicity and ‘casera’ (made-at-home) style. Won’t tire you with complaints, but we didn’t take many photos either.

Cordoba still has lovely, large park areas criss-crossed with paths, within which they make great use of water features such as fountains – a legacy of the city’s Moorish roots – and many charming plazas.

Local Garden Cordoba Spain

Feature Water Fountain Cordoba Spain

Cousin Manny did come down from Seville for a day which was an uplifting moment but even he failed to find the magic and classic cuisine of Cordoba’s yore.

Rachel moved us on to a cooler Bilbao (via bus to Malaga and another Vueling flight to Bilbao), and what a city it is.

Bilbao – and we’re away from the humidity at last.

Once one of the most heavily industrialized cities in Spain (and that’s saying something as the whole northern region of Spain thrived largely on its mines and associated heavy industry), it is now renowned for its architectural charm, chic, and gastronomy. While a large amount of its industry still stands – in some places in ruins, in some preserved as a monument to the city’s past, and in some instances still operating – there has been over the last decade or so a massive revamping and re-prioritising of the city’s valuable heritage.

Bilbao Spain

The Nervion River was its life blood, and its sewer: Industry and the public pumped its waste into its great tidal flows. It has been said that Bilbao’s people used to live with their back to the river, ignoring its filth. Now, they have turned to look upon it, and are seamlessly developing its banks and old industrialized islands and peninsulas into modern, pleasant residential and commercial zones that are at once architecturally astounding and pleasing to the eye. Now, small ferries and pleasure craft ply its waters. There is still a long way to go but the progress is noticeable.

I was reminded of the city I was raised in – Ebbw Vale, a coal mining and steel foundry town just like this, except that the River Ebbw never flowed as fulsomely as this River Nervion. Up this river a huge ship building industry flourished to complement its steel foundries and even today, some of the old bridges stand testament to the great design and engineering of the day. Both the new and old architecture, its bridges and buildings, are, to put it frankly, artistically and aesthetically astounding, therefore rewarding for us travellers and if you add this to the fact that there are, literally, thousands of bars, restaurants and cafes here serving great and economic (really affordable) food and drink, well, we’re loving it and we’re staying for a full eleven days.

Bars: In most Mediterranean countries a ‘bar’ has a different connotation to Oz or NZ. Yes, alcohol is served there and often consumed by locals even at early hours, however it is primarily a place to consume lots of food and coffee, and also other non-alcoholic beverages. Locals have their breakfasts at a bar, workers their lunch, and the perambulating public will consume coffee and cakes late afternoon (usually moving to a pasteleria or cafeteria – which also serve alcohol) and return to the bars later in the evening for drinks and tapas – ‘pintxos’ up here in the Basque country.

Walks: It was always our desire to do long coastal walks on this holiday and from Bilbao we have been able to achieve this – in spades. Meanwhile, we travelled to one or two of Bilbao’s outer coastal reaches – Portugalete and Getxo near the Nervion River mouth and Plentzia, a hamlet on the north east coast. And how about this – in each place they were holding a local Fiesta. What a bonus. The bars were packed to the rafters and the place was buzzing.
And then, a day of football fever! Bilbao Athletic won their game against Barcelona (you’d think ‘twas against all odds judging by the size of the crowds in the streets – it was, they are the only team with no imported players and Barcelona is the top team to beat).

There is a lot of colour coded clothing (shirts and t-shirts) around Bilbao besides the football colours, each fiesta evokes a colour-coded regional rivalry – blue, green, red, and the iconic Euzkadi (Viscayan/Basque Republic) blue and white scarf worn by men &/or women of all ages. But all is worn in good spirit: in spite of the copious alcohol drunk on these days we witnessed no antagonism.

We travelled by Metro to Sopelana, another beach-side hamlet, and walked the cliff tracks over to Plentzia again – a very long hike. It was a beautiful day and the walk was all we could have asked for. Typically, we ended the day with a few drinks and bar snacks. We walk for miles every day, using the excellent public transport only when we need to cover greater distances. From Zorroza, where we are staying, we frequently walk along the river bank into Bilbao centre, passing Bilbao’s industrial past to reach the Guggenheim museum/art gallery, and Bilbao’s other major architectural wonders.

We also struck another Fiesta, this time a major one – Bilbao city’s Semana Grande, which starts in the 3rd week of August and runs for 9 days solid – and here we are, only here for another three, but we’ll get stuck in and see what we can make of it. Boy, these Spanish know how to party!

This was one of about fifty temporary bar/bandstands along the riverside.
Bilbao Festival 2015 Spain

We had watched them setting up all the bars and band-stands along the down-town river banks the previous week. On a grey-skyed Saturday we walked along the river bank into town armed with jackets and two umbrellas: we were too early, nothing was happening, so we returned to our apartment. About six-ish, confident that it wasn’t going to rain, we walked back into town in our light clothing armed with one umbrella. We got as far as the Guggenheim’s big live-floral dog when we realised we’d misjudged the weather. Naturally, we sheltered in a bar till the rain eased, then found another suitable establishment within which to ‘have another’. Here we met a well-travelled and generous school teacher who educated us more about Bilbao, the Basques and their culture in general; it’s amazing what interesting encounters one can have in bars. He then gave us a tip for a good bar (good prices and excellent pintxos) – Bar Bilbao in Plaza Nueva. We struck out into the damp in search – then the heavens opened and it really poured down. Huddled under our one umbrella we joined the crowds in the old town as they sheltered under doorways. The fiesta started in spite of the rain and we eventually found Bar Bilbao and the teacher was right, but man was it busy. The weather did settle down and about midnight the fireworks started. Talk about Boom Crash Wallop! What a thudding and colourful display it was (Eet must have cost a fortune . . . me boy – and it was repeated every one of the fiesta’s nine nights!). It was, err . . . well, a fabulous spectacle.

Bilbao Festival Opening 2015

On another visit to the delightful suburb of Portugalete we struck another festival – this time a much contested river boat race. The competition is serious and fierce – yet once again, no violence (just tantrums from the steersmen of those robbed of their title by a fraction of a second in a photo finish).

Accessibility: Travelling as we do, especially when relying on public transport (as we are throughout this whole journey), accessibility to a city’s arterial public transport systems is crucial. When booking ahead – looking for economical accommodation – the best results can sometimes appear not too central but that matters not a jot if the city has a great public transport system. Bilbao does (and that includes to and from the airport). Rachel found us good accommodation in Zorroza (Pension Zorroza), an old industrial area serviced well by trains and buses. Our room and the location was so good that within the first hour of being there we organised to stay another ten nights. A riverside walk and cycleway was accessed by a two minute walk and of that we made good use nearly every day in walking to and from the city proper (approx two kilometres each way). From the bus stop right outside the Pension and a train station 200 metres away, we ranged far and wide over the region. We were ‘networked’ into greater Bilbao.

Bilbao Espana 2015

Twenty metres away from the front door of our Pension was the first of Zorotza’s fifty or so bars – Bar Rocket. It quickly became our favourite as the food is good and reasonably priced – like its drinks. One day, while we sat at the bar watching on screen Barcelona challenge the new champions (local Bilbao Athletic) to the accompaniment of a raucous bar crowd, I spied a nice looking young man in some sort of security guard uniform. He was equally wrapped up in the screen’s game. Looking him up and down, as one does – hohoho, I noticed that around his waist there was a side-arm; nothing unusual about that as all police and security guards carry them here. But then I noticed his belt: it was a Bandolier full of (what looked like 38mm) bullets. Hmmm, I haven’t seen that before. I tried to discretely take a photo while he lamented his team’s antics and the ref’s decisions (as all the patrons were), but he up and left before I could get up the brass neck to do it properly. Shame. Hey, it was his belt I wanted to photograph!

And so, time for us to say goodbye to sunny Spain and we fly out from Bilbao’s airport at an unnervingly steep 45 degree angle to get over its steep mountains. We’re off to Rome, to roam Italy’s streets once more, and perhaps do a little last-minute shopping before exiting from Bologna. More photos from Bilbao will follow separately.

To Rome . . .

to roam . . .

Ohhhhhh, who’s a clever boy – who’s a clever boy 🙂