Olives and olive oil is what brought the Greeks and Romans to the Iberian peninsula some 3,500 yrs ago and it has been a crucial commodity ever since. The south of Spain produces the quantity with thousands of hectares cultivated in the poorest soils where nothing else will survive the extreme weather, but around Lleida in the western part of Catalonia there are also extensive plantations.
The main variety is the arbequina olive which although small in size has one of the lowest levels of acidity and some even go as far as to say it produces “sweet” olive oil in contrast to the more “picante” southern varieties.
Outside the town of Les Borges Blanques, some 35kms from Lleida, just off the main road, is a museum/theme park devoted to explaining the cultivation, processing and selling of olive oil through history.
Outside the gardens are full of huge gnarled olive trees that date back to when the Romans were in the area some 2,000 yrs ago. One amazing tree is said to have been carbon dated as 2,700 yrs old!
The process of extraction got increasingly sophisticated as the presses on display show until today it is a high tech enterprise where the temperature is controlled and the quality has improved beyond belief with the resulting oil giving an organoleptic experience like a good wine.
Now there are hundreds of different oils on the market, some from olives picked early making the oil a green colour to blends of different varieties or organically produced, whichever way with some bread to drizzle on it is still one of the best Mediterranean customs!