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An Ancient Fruit Faces New Times

Olive groves near Seville thrive, though fewer young people in Spain choose farming

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 1992


CRISTIAN DE ROJAS Y SOLIS reaches for a tree branch, plucks a small olive, and slices it neatly.

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"It's soft," he says, scooping out the squishy, immature pit with his penknife. Come September, he'll be ready to harvest this fruit, Spain's signature crop.

We are standing in a valley near Bollullos de la Mitacion, a small agricultural village about nine miles southwest of Seville. Long rows of trees stretch to the horizon in every direction. "One falls in love with agriculture," Mr. de Rojas says.

It's easy to do, here in the grove. Behind him, a half-dozen workmen prune the trees. Their quiet chop-chop-chop blends with the breezy rustle of olive-tree leaves. It's as if, for this moment, man and nature are working in complete harmony.

The image belies the reality of the Spanish olive. But here in an almost perfect balance of sun and shade and breeze, it's beguiling.

This farm is called Hacienda Cuatrohabitan, for the four ("cuatro") brothers who formed it and farmed it. Now, De Rojas manages the operation for his mother. He shows off his office - a large room with a table awkwardly set in the center. (De Rojas, one suspects, doesn't like paperwork.) He shows off his farm's 11th-century Islamic mosque. In some countries, this structure would be a historic landmark; here, it has been turned into a Roman Catholic shrine. Pigeons, roosting in the tower, squawk indignant ly when we climb to the top.

The oldest olive trees in Cuatrohabitan are 90 years old - venerable enough, but infants compared with Spain's centuries-old groves, some of which are as old as the mosque, De Rojas says. To keep the trees young, olive growers periodically cut off old branches to let new ones take their place. Since olives grow best on trees with only two main branches, there is a symmetry to their appearance. The breeze, apparently, has to travel through the tree as well as around it.

Although there are some 2,000 varieties of olives, most of them are used to make olive oil. Only two main varieties are used as table olives: the queen and the manzanilla.

"In all fruits, it seems one variety is No. 1," says Jose Carmona, manager of the Association of Exporters of Table Olives. In green table olives, the manzanilla is it. Smaller than the queens, it retains the classic shape of a stuffed heart; It has a small pit and lots of pulp.

"It is a coquettish fruit," Mr. Carmona says, and it comes off the pit just so.

Such things are important to olive men. De Rojas only grows manzanillas.

Spain's green olives are harvested in September and October, which sounds natural enough. But they are picked while still green, long before maturity. In the field, harvested olives taste very bitter. Ripe olives are black, but even California-style black olives are picked green and then oxidized to turn them black.

"For Spain and Seville, the style is to get the olive green from the tree and to put it in a caustic soda," Carmona says. He explains each detail with pride. The soda enters the pulp of the fruit and takes out the bitterness. The olives are washed and then put into a brine of water and salt to ferment, much like wine grapes.