A Hidden Treasure – Portuguese Olive Oil

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.

Beautiful Old Olive Tree

This entry was posted in History of Portugal, Olive Oil, Portuguese Food and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to A Hidden Treasure – Portuguese Olive Oil

  1. Pingback: California’s Olive Oils Challenge Europe’s – NYTimes.com « Mind Your Language

  2. Interesting article! We are shopping tomorrow so I will see if I can find some Portuguese olive oil.
    I have three Olive trees in my garden and have not,as yet, had one olive! I wonder if I’m not pruning them correctly?

    Glad I found your blog – the wonders of Twitter 🙂

    • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

      Yes do – its the best and not as expensive as others! Look for Azeite Tras-os-Montes (north eastern Portugal) its delicious.

    • Samuel says:

      I have seen, at your blog, that you live at the Algarve, i must say that i don’t know any famous brand of Algarve’s Olive Oil, and there’s a reason for that: the weather. Is not the best region for plant olive trees.
      Anyway i will tell you how to pruning it correctly.
      Normaly the tree trunk is divided into four arms (sometimes only 3). Imagine the 4 arms like the cross of christ, then what you should do is: after you collect the fruits, (March) you pruning only 2 arms, and must be oposite ones. (and keep it in your memory) this is importante to keep de tree balance.

      When i say pruning, you leave 2 arms with leafs, and the others 2 arms without leafs, you don’t cut the arm, just the small branches.

      After 2 or 3 years, you cut the old arms that you left (2 years ago), and leave the new arms, producing the fruits. You have to do this because the new branches need 2 years to start producing the fruits. Then you will always have production. Because you will always have 2 arms producing, and 2 arms to give strenght to the tree.
      Some people cut the all leafs of the tree, making her weak, and then, the tree needs 3 or 4 years to start producing again. After 3 years the people are stressed out because the tree doesn’t produce and cut it all again, and then are always complaining because the tree doesn’t produce.

      I hope i helped you. Anyway if you want good olive oil, you should consider move to the north of the country. 😉

      • Hi Samuel
        Actually I live in the north of Portugal close to Porto and travel frequently to the Douro valley and Tras os Montes where some of the finest olive oils are produced. Thank you for the tips on pruning unfortunately I don’t have an olive tree of my own but it is becoming more and more popular in the city to do so and you can see them in the Porto city centre in many gardens!
        I am a huge fan of Portuguese olive oil and when I can I help to promote it to foreigners who really love it too.
        Thank you again for the comments & tips!

      • Hi Samuel,
        Thankyou so much for your pruning tips. If the owner of this blog does not mind I will include them in a post on my gardening blog. I have a few olives this year, but not many. I will post some pictures to my gardening blog so you can see the shape of them. My olove trees are not as you describe so I really appreciate your tips!

      • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

        Piglet in Portugal & Samuel, please feel free to share this information as you both see fit. I am always happy to share for everyone to learn. I appreciate your interest!
        When you are coming to Porto ‘PinP’ – if you need guidance pls don’t hesitate to let me know.

      • PS I’ve just read you collect the fruits in MArch, There are fruits on my tree now!

    • Karin Aukes says:

      I have to admit – it is indeed a very interesting article. I am living in Holland and want to import for instance olive oil and it is hard to find a connection in Portugal making a good olive oil. If you know somebody interesting in export, please let me know.

      • Samuel says:

        Hi, i wonder what is the deal that you have in mind? How much (quantity) we are talking about? We are talking about a few bottles (like a six 0,75cl bottles box) or a truck full of bottles?
        Write me, to smonteiromota@hotmail.com, and maybe i can help you.

      • Anthea De La Roche says:

        Hello `Karin, I have recently bought a property which produces around 1000 litres of olive oil a year though have not yet done a harvest of my own. The farm is organic but not certified. I’ve owned it for 4 years and it was without owner for three prior to that.

        The olives will be ready for picking at the end of November. Please get in touch if you are interested in being a part of the harvest and importing the oil to Holland. The region is in the foothills of the mountains in the national park Seia de Estrellas. They are renown for producing the best oilves.

        My email is antheadelaroche@gmail.com or leave a text on my mobile
        +44 (0)7773167327

        Best wishes


      • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

        Dear Anthea, Sounds great and even better being organic. Where are you exactly located? Will you sell out of your property? I hope that this will help Karin to get some good Portuguese olive into Holland.

      • Ralph says:

        Hi Karin. I am in a position to assist. We produce excellent and only extra virgin olive oil which is pressed and bottled on our farm. What sort of quantity are you looking to import? Our website is http://www.farmoliveoil.pt. Please do get in touch with me on email rbthere@gmail.com and we will discuss your requirements.

        Many thanks and regards.

      • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

        This looks wonderful Ralph – what a great website! I will pass the word on for other enquiries that I get. Thank you!

  3. samuel says:

    I should had put the “(March)” two words ahead.. At the north we collect the fruits in early January. After that, and because the weather is very cold, with sometimes snow, and frost, we just cut the branches at March.

    The collect depends on the region where you are, because the weather. I know, for exemple, that in the center of the country, and Alentejo the people collect the fruits at the end of October or beggining of November. This depends of the weather. Last year was a warm winter, so at the North the fruits were good to collect at the end of November, something that i never seen. Was a bad year, because people went there in January to collect the fruits, and they were already on the ground, rotting.

    The other reason to collect the fruits at January is the flavor and acidity of the oil. I don’t know if i will use the correct words to explain this, but i will try. Every fruit ripens faster if collected,this ripens means that is getting “oxidize” at every second that pass. The more time passes between, the time that you collect the fruit, and the time when you squeeze it, the worst will be the olive oil. So at the North, we wait for the frozen january days, to keep the quality of the fruits, till the squeeze, because the cool weather works like a huge refridgerator. Maximum production and quality, and low acidity (less than 0,2º).

    That’s why people say that in Tras-os-Montes we have the best olive oil. But depends on people’s taste! 😉

  4. We hope to come for Porto for our Wedding anniversary in October. It really depends on the cheap ryanair flights 🙂 Can’t wait… I will be in touch.

    When I use the info in comments etc I will certainly link back to your blog 🙂 thank you.

    I bought Tras-os-Montes olive oil when I went shopping this week. – like a good wine it will be interesting to comepare!

    Samuel, thanks for the info on Olive oil and growing olives I find it fascinating as I’m an olive oil and Oliviera virgin. 🙂

    • Samuel says:

      Hello, I’m curious to know the result of the test of the north olive oil. 😉 It was also good to know the brand you chosen.

  5. Peter D. Hands says:

    It is almost impossible to find Portuguese olive oil in the United Kingdom.I am in Portugal and find my favourite type – green and grassy hard to find.Occasionally this flavour will turn up in a mainstream brand here like Gallo or Esporao , only to disappear with the next batch!Therefore I like the unadulterated Italian oils best followed by Greek due to the flavours .I find the Portuguese oil closest to the Spanish .
    It’s all a matter of taste.I’d say the best oils are from Tras-os Montes region,I have really liked some of those , but the “typical flavours” while OK are not the flavours I like the most.

    • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

      Thank you for your comments! It is a pity that Portuguese olive oils are not as well known outside of this country. I am inclined to agree in that the Tras-os-Montes oils are excellent and I am also a fan of the newer Douro oils being produced by Portuguese Port wine companies too. Worth looking into if you have an opportunity.

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  6. Sami says:

    Lovely post about the wonderful Portuguese olive oil. I do miss it here in Australia!! I have found a shop that sells European goodies and they sell 3lt cans of Portuguese Galo Olive oil, which is not the best, but is certainly a lot superior than most of the Australian olive oils I have tried. We have visited an olive oil production and they use green olives (not ripe) to make the olive oil, no wonder it is bitter! Also they don´t even quote the acidity in the bottles. Most of the oils are actually pale green and not the dark green Portuguese olive oils.

    • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

      Thank you Sami! I bet you miss it. I am an Aussie from Perth and have just checked your blog to see that you are also living in Perth. I live here in Portugal and love the smoothness of the olive oils rather than those bitter ones that you sometimes get! Thank you for commenting!

  7. Pingback: O is for Olives « Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal

  8. Todd says:

    Love the Article and I am very excited since I will be in Portugal in less than a month. This trip is all about the olives and wonderful Portuguese Cuisine.

    • portugaluntouchedtoday says:

      Tks yes make the most of it as you will love all of this, the food, wine and olive oil! Try and visit the Douro valley to see the vineyards and try the wines there. Pop into a Port wine Lodge – Graham’s Port for example who have a beautiful visitors cellar and a new restaurant called Vinum too to try Portuguese delights. Enjoy!

  9. nolan lerner says:

    I am visiting Portugal and would like to visit an olive oil press. Where can I do a tour ?
    I will be driving from Lisbon to Evora,Obidos, Coibra and Porto. Are there any presses I can visit on this route ? Also would like to see corks manufactured. Any suggestions

    • portugaluntouched says:

      Thank you for your enquiry. I will reply by email directly to you with some tips on what to do and see.
      Many tks

  10. Pingback: THE OTHER GOOD PRODUCT | Douro Valley

  11. mitchbattese says:

    Great info on Portugal. My wife and I were in Portugal a couple years ago and we dined near the coast and ordered fish. It was the best. I asked about the light butter that it appeared to be cooked in and was told that he had not used butter but it was a local olive oil. Wow! An olive oil that had the great consistency of mild butter and the taste was out of this world. I have searched all over the mid-west for this kind of olive oil and the Portugal olive oil spoiled me. I can’t get it in Kansas. I’m looking on the internet for a reputable dealer and I’d like to find that high-class Portuguese oil. Any ideas on where I can order Portugal olive oil?

  12. Sarah says:

    My husband and I can’t wait to visit Portugal at the end of May. We both love olives / olive oil and really want to visit an olive farm / press. Do you know if there are any places that provide tours? Appreciate your help with this!

  13. Johnny says:

    Hi, great info on this blog. I am currently in Portugal and will be here for another 2 weeks. I would really enjoy going to an Olive Oil farm and take a tour and purchase olive oil. Please let me know if there is any farm I can visit to obtain this experience. I am staying in a small town near Aveiro. Don’t want to travel to far and I know I’m about 1 hour away from Porto. Please let me know

    • Manuel says:

      My friend, you are in northern Portugal and there are no olive groves in that part of the country, which is where I am from. You have to go south, about 2 hours to see any olive groves or you can just stay in Aveiro and enjoy what it has to offer!

  14. Pingback: Souvenirs from Lisbon – p a g e 6 6 9 9

  15. Rohit says:

    I am from india. Have been in Portugal for the last 2 years. One of my friends wants to import olive oil from Portugal. Can you please suggest me best olive oil companies in Portugal and procedure in portugal for exporting the oil. Thanks

    • portugaluntouched says:

      Hello and thank you for reading my blog! There are some excellent producers of olive oil around Portugal and my favourites come from the north of Portugal in the Tras-os-Montes/Douro region. Recently I was contacted by a young man called Daniel making organic oil way up in the Trás-os-Montes region who has a company called https://www.facetas.net/history if you are looking for a specialized oil then this would be the person to contact.
      With regard to other producers you have some very good ones in the Alentejo region too such as Esporão and more on this website. http://www.azeitedoalentejo.pt/azeite-do-alentejo.html It is hard to say and give you the best ones as there are many producers now and some are larger companies whilst others are small family businesses. More information here as well: http://www.soulportugal.com/blog/rota-dos-azeites-alentejo-quinta-de-sao-vicente-oliveira-da-serra/
      On this link you have the best producers in Portugal: https://www.bestoliveoils.com/country/portugal
      With regard to exporting the oil, I am afraid I can’t help you here. I suggest that you contact a couple of these companies and explain your friend’s intention to export to India and they should be able to guide you on the best way to handle this. Good luck and thanks again!

  16. My name is Daniel and i’m a organic olive oil producer in the Trás-os-Montes region of Portugal.
    Have a look on http://www.facetas.net to know more about it.
    Nice blog portugaluntouched!!

    • portugaluntouched says:

      Thank you Daniel for your kind words and great to hear that you make such a wonderful product – organic olive oil. I use organic olive oil pretty much all of the time so I’ll be on the look out for yours! I have some requests for people wishing to import olive oil into India so will pass your contact on to them for information. Thank you again!

  17. Maria Vano says:

    Hi Portugaluntouched — love your site! I’ll be moving to PT in a few months so I can expand my own wine/olive oil website. About a year while living in Hungary, I tasted a few PT oils (and wines) and fell in love with them! I’m still trying to decide which area to move to so that I can explore the small producers, organic, those who are doing wonderful things, and introduce them to the world like you are. May I contact you via email? (Daniel Martins, you too!)

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