Portuguese olive oil – Liquid gold

Portuguese olive oil is of an exceptionally high quality. Even countries such as Italy use Portuguese olives to produce their own olive oil. One of the pillars of healthy eating, king of the Mediterranean diet, it’s a growing national treasure.
Flying over the Portuguese countryside, our gaze rests on an amalgamation of infinite green lines cut into spaces by irregular interrupted lines, occasionally dotted with imperfect circles. Down below there are trees, thousands and millions of olive trees, aligned on both sides of the IP8, the road that cuts into the landscape of Baixo Alentejo, in the Ferreira region. 3,400 hectares of olive trees, just a fraction of the 356 thousand hectares that are spread around the country. At the centre of these 10 million olive trees, where we can already see the olives which will be harvested when the cold weather arrives, is the Lagar do Marmelo, a huge white building designed by Portuguese architect Ricardo Bak Gordon, one of two that Sovena has in Portugal. From Lagar do Marmelo alone, eight million litres are exported annually, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the 200 thousand tonnes produced every year by Sovena, one of the largest producers of olive oil in the world, owner of such brands as ‘Oliveira da Serra’ and ‘Andorinha’, based in seven countries and exporting to 70.

Is there anything more satisfying than dipping a piece of fresh bread in some olive oil? Or bread toasted over an open fire, drizzled with olive oil instead of butter? Is there anything better than a beautiful piece of cod fish, fresh out of the oven, where it roasted on a bed of onions and olive oil? The Portuguese know there’s nothing like it. Moreover, it’s the centre piece of the Mediterranean diet – inscribed in 2013 on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO – “It’s a healthy fat”, Jorge de Melo, president of Sovena, reminds us, recognising that the recent cult of healthy living has aided the sales growth all around the world.

Although each Portuguese person has an average intake of eight litres of olive oil every year, it is less than the Spanish or the Italians, who are not only the largest consumers of olive oil, but also the largest producers. But it’s not all it seems: despite Italy being in the top 5, a lot of the olive oil sold by Italian brands comes from other countries. “Italy has reduced its production significantly, but they have a reputation to maintain”, and to make up for the lack of production, they end up buying olive oil from Portugal, Morocco or Tunisia. “Over half of our exports are sold in bulk, which is a new phenomenon”, says Mariana Matos, secretary general of Casa do Azeite, an association dedicated to the growth of olive oil production in Portugal. And if a significant part of this goes to Spain from olive groves purchased by the Spanish, Italy, “which has a severe deficit, uses Portuguese olive oil to make batches with their own varieties”.

Towards the end of last year, Portuguese exports came to 496 million euros. Herdade do Esporão, for example, exports 60% of its produce to external markets, and Sovena sends 80%. Since the dawn of the millennium, the owner of ‘Oliveira da Serra’ started eyeing up other markets. The first internationalisation started with the purchase of assets in Spain and then the acquisition of ‘Andorinha’ in Brazil. Close behind was the purchase of the biggest olive oil importing and packaging company in the USA. In 2006, in addition to the olive grove owned in Spain, it started exploring growth in Morocco and a year later in Tunisia. In total, 15 thousand hectares and over 19 million olive trees have been planted since 2007, or, as Jorge de Melo put it “almost two trees for every Portuguese person”.
The biggest olive grove in the world

Despite the size of Sovena, Portugal still isn’t the biggest producer of olive oil in the world, although there is little doubt that it’s one of the best, and it’s not only the Portuguese who claim this. Towards the end of June, Portugal returned from New York the winner of four ‘Mario Solinas’ prizes, the Oscars of olive oil. The International Olive Council distinguished Portugal in the mild green fruitiness category produced by the Sociedade Agrícola Vale do Ouro. Sovena, Fitagro, and Elosua were also recognised; an achievement that isn’t new and has been repeated throughout the years. As Mariana Matos said, “within the professional circle, there is no doubt that Portugal is on the right track”.

Not only in quality, but also in quantity, Portugal is taking on an increasingly significant role. Mariana welcomes us on the day the National Institute of Statistics confirms the figures for 2017-2018: 134.600 tons, the largest in recorded history. “It’s something that ten years ago would have been impossible, even in our wildest dreams.” Work done slowly and steadily that has taken over two decades, she explains. “The genesis happened towards the end of the 1990s, with a different outlook on an industry that had been dying since the 1960s, which marked the beginning of the margarine fad, when everyone claimed was healthier than olive oil. The industry really felt the effects of this drop in consumption.” And it got worse. The darkest hour happened soon after, when Portugal joined the EU in 1986, then called European Economic Community. It got so bad that subsidies were given to destroy olive groves. 

A decade later, when the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) decided to end production aid and “businessmen start investing in what was most profitable, instead of what gave them more subsidies”, the olive oil industry was revitalised. “At the time there were plans to restore the industry, and the government started noticing its potential, due to growth in the international market.” Here production has nose-dived despite the whole country being full of olive trees since forever. “To add to that, there was a lot of water available, a lot of the land was newly vacated from cereal production, and Portugal ended up negotiating a plan to renew the olive oil industry with extraordinary help that wasn’t available in any other country.” All this occured just as they were finishing construction on the Alqueva dam in 2003, which was essential for supplying water to the Alentejo region. It was the perfect combination: European aid, abundant water, and mass land extensions allowing olive groves of 10, 20, 30 thousand hectares to be planted in the Alentejo. And while in the rest of the country, weather and geographical conditions only allow for small personal estates to be established, steady investments are being made. Currently, 61% of the olive groves in the Alentejo are owned by Portuguese companies, according to the figures given by the Alqueva Development and Infrastructure Company. In total, 41,243 hectares. And “the development of new technologies completed the equation. Today the best olive oil production is happening in the Alentejo, not only in terms of plantations, but also in terms of mills and production”.

Harvest and mills

The Portuguese word for olive oil – ‘azeite’ has its origins in the Arab word ‘az-zait’, which literally translates to ‘olive juice’. Mariana Matos explains that “there aren’t many fats that are juices extracted from fruit, normally they come from seeds, using an extraction process that involves chemical solvents. That doesn’t happen with olive oil. It’s just juice.” From the olive grove, the olives are taken to the mill, where they are cleaned, before they’re crushed. A centrifugation process separates the olive oil from the water and the pulp of the olive. The number of mills has decreased while production has gone up. A decade ago there were about one thousand mills for little over 50 million tonnes worth of production. Today there are about 500 mills spread around the country. “We have fewer mills, but the ones that are still standing are more effective, more modern and better equipped.”

One of these mills belongs to Herdade do Esporão, in Reguengos de Monsaraz, which uses the olives harvested from the olive groves in Arrifes, as well as the ones grown in Quinta dos Murças near Douro, from trees over 50 years old. Galician and Negrinha do Freixo trees, “where the harvesting is done manually and has very unique qualities”, says João Roquette, CEO of Herdade do Esporão. It’s the area alongside the river Douro that makes the Trás-os-Montes region second in terms of production. Roquette says that the two Esporão olive groves are certified as organic. Better known for its wines, Herdade do Esporão has been producing olive oil for over 20 years and sells 1,5 million litres of olive oil, not only in Portugal, but in Brazil, Canada and the USA.

In Ancient Greece, olive trees were venerated as sacred and olive oil used in Greek cuisine, ointments and lighting. It was, and still is, true liquid gold. Now, nobody can resist Portuguese olive oil.

Text by Hermínia Saraiva

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