How olives are grown
Imagine tranquil sunbathed groves with branchy olive trees maturing under the blue skies at the backdrops of idyllic mountainous landscapes – this is how olive trees are traditionally grown in many Mediterranean countries. It may seem like the Mother-nature itself does the job... But, in fact, growing healthy and flavourful olives to produce top-quality oil takes a lot of care and expertise. Here is how olives are grown.
European olive tree, a symbol of longevity
Olive tree (Olea europaea) meaning ‘European olive’ is a hardy evergreen tree with silver-green leaves, gnarled trunk and a robust root system. Olive trees can live more than 2000 years as they are drought- and disease-resistant and also capable of regenerating themselves even after a major storm or a fire. No wonder, they are often seen as a symbol of health and longevity. (Read the legend about olive tree)
The oldest olive tree in the world from the Greek island of Crete is believed to be nearly 3,000 years. So it might have been around when Jesus Christ walked the face of the Earth. Surprisingly, this ‘natural monument’ still produces olives, which are highly prized.
How to grow a healthy olive tree
It takes at least ten pounds of olives to produce one litre of olive oil. The flavour and concentration of health-promoting polyphenols in fresh olives depend on many factors, including cultivar and climate conditions, with farming and harvesting methods also playing an important role.
Although an olive tree can survive even in very dry and poor soil conditions, good agronomic practices, such as fertilization, irrigation and pruning, are applied by farmers throughout the Mediterranean basin. Reasonable fertilization and irrigation optimizes the healthy productivity of the plant, while careful pruning stimulates growth and number of olives a single tree would bear.
In Europe, there are many designated regions specialising in growing olives and producing excellent olive oils. The European Union can grant following certification seals to these olive oil producers as a guarantee of their high quality products:
- PDO, or the ‘Protected Designation of Origin’
- PGI, or the ‘Protected Geographical Indication’
- Organic Olive Oil guarantees ecological, chemical- and GM-free production
The time and methods of harvesting also play an important role in flavour and antioxidant content of olive fruits. Green olives have quite high concentration of healthy polyphenol compounds, but it decreases as the fruit ripens and turns black. The farmers know that the ideal moment to pick olives is when they just start changing their colour.
While harvesting, it is extremely important to avoid the contact of olives with soil, which can result in fruits contaminating and bruising. Some small family farms in Europe still traditionally pick olives by hand to produce artisan olive oils that may be as expensive as some exclusive wines.
Many large-scale farms, however, usually use modern equipment like ‘tree shaking machines’ with nets or huge upturned umbrellas set up beneath the trees to catch the olives before they hit the ground.
The harvested olives must be collected in shallow containers to avoid fruits crushing and consequently fermentation and brought to the oil mill as soon as possible. Best quality oils are pressed within 24 hours after harvesting. And here starts the next transformation phase from an olive fruit on the tree into wholesome olive oil on your table. Read ‘How olive oil is made.’