I have, discovered in my time living here, that Portuguese olive oil, known as ‘azeite‘, is one of the most delicious there are.
Olive oil was extracted over 5,000 years B.C. from wild olives in modern Syria and
Palestine but only after the expansion of the Roman Empire did the olive oil reach a corresponding growth and consequently into the Mediterranean. There is evidence of olive trees in Portugal dating back to the Bronze Age but only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries did Portugal’s production gain greater importance. Following the Portuguese discoveries, olive oil was exported on a bigger scale and in the mid-sixteenth century, the
consumption had grown intensely as the oil was used as fuel for lighting with the main markets being in northern Europe and India.
During the late 19th century, when a small louse called Phylloxera devastated all the vineyards throughout Europe, including Portugal, olive trees were planted in place of vines in the Douro valley in an attempt to bring in an income for those people who stayed on the lands. Consequently today groves of grey-green olive trees can be seen all over the region bringing a beautiful yet sober look to the valley.
Whilst travelling around the north of the country, I have come across some very old granite olive oil ‘lagares’ (tanks) at various places and have often wondered as to how these massive contraptions would have actually worked back in those days. Today of course everything is mechanized but in those days traditionally, the process was long and arduous and would start with carefully, manually harvesting the olives which takes place in the late Autumn early winter. They have changed colour from green to black during late summer so that when they are picked they are considered ripe. The oil is often indicative of its flavour so a greenish colour can produce a more fruity oil but care needs to be taken to ensure that it isn’t bitter whereas overripe olives can produce a rancid oil and therefore ideally the olives should be perfectly ripe when harvested.
The olives were crushed in a circular granite tank by three to four large granite rings standing vertically inside it. In what would seem incredibly hard work for one animal alone, these large rings would rotate by being pulled by an ox or mule. The resulting crushed paste, made up of oil, water (there is always a small amount of water in an olive) and a solid mass, would be left to decant for a while to begin the separation process. Following this, the solid mass was spread on woven mats which were then stacked one on top of another and finally crushed under the weight of two solid granite ball-shaped rocks supported from wooden beams hanging horizontally from the wall. From this, would drain oil and water which would separate due to the difference in density, the oil rising to the top whilst the water would remain underneath. The resulting oil was light green, almost fluorescent, creamy with a penetrating perfume and an intense and spicy taste. This was cold pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil and in today’s standards cannot exceed 0.8 acidity or have impurities and is of course the finest there is.
Sadly today, these beautiful old olive oil granite ‘lagares’ and presses stand as monuments to the incredible hard work that went into making this product and one cannot help but admire their impressive beauty.
Today six DOP (Denominação de Origem Protegida) protected regions exist in Portugal:
- DOP Trás os Montes
- DOP Beira Interior
- DOP Ribatejo
- DOP Alentejo interior
- DOP Norte Alentejano
- DOP Moura
Three different qualities of olive oil exist – Extra Virgin Olive Oil ( Azeite Virgem Extra), Virgin Olive Oil (Azeite Virgen) and Olive Oil (Azeite) and we are now seeing a growth in delicious Organic Olive Oils.
There is a whole new trend and focus on selective and quality olive oil production with small and large producers planting new olive groves and using the latest in technology for extraction. With all of these improvements one can easily find a vast new array of excellent quality olive oils available to choose from.
I find it unfortunate that Portuguese olive oil is practically unheard of in other countries as it is top class and not overly expensive. The whole history behind its production over the centuries should make any Portuguese person proud of their heritage.