Known as liquid gold, olive oil has been around for millennia. The oldest surviving olive oil amphora dates back to 3500 BC but it is believed that production of olive oil could have started earlier than 4000 BC.
Olive oil has certainly been produced in Crete since 1500 BC and in Portugal, it is known that the Romans cultivated the trees to produce oil for lamps plus for culinary purposes, with the Visigoths continuing the practise.
It has also been shown that the fatty acids and antioxidants in olive oil can offer powerful health benefits including the reduced risk of heart disease.
If the country continues on its current path, by 2030 Portugal should become one of the top three global producers. It is currently the seventh largest global olive oil producer and the fourth largest exporter.
Know in Portuguese as oliveiras, olive trees are grown for the most part in Alentejo with Trás-os-Montes in the north-east of Portugal being the country’s second largest producer.
In Portugal, harvesting for oil (azeite) normally takes place between October and February when the fat content is highest. The olives will be a purple colour and they have a less intense flavour. The less ripe olives are picked earlier and are used to produce a more fruity and stronger oil.
When harvesting commercially, the trees are shaken using a mechanical device. The olives drop onto netting that has been spread under the trees and then they are collected, sorted into size etc, crushed, mashed and heated to extract the oil.
Vines and olives trees will often be seen together as they have much in common. The difference in soil and the microclimate contribute to the taste and colour of both grapes and olives.
An ideal snack, or even a tasty “cover” at a restaurant, is Portuguese bread dipped in local olive oil and then salt, preferably flor de sal. Very tasty- you really should try it.
If you are interested in seeing for yourself how olives are milled in an artisan setting, with an opportunity to taste different varieties, then Monterosa in Moncarapacho (to the east of Algarve) is definitely the place to visit. To find out more click here. And if you fancy trying an easy recipe, a real summer Portuguese dish (cataplana), click here.