Olive Oil – that most ancient of liquors
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.
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 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.
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