An Ancient Fruit Faces New Times

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

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

"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.

It takes weeks or sometimes months of processing to bring them to perfection. When ready, they are stuffed with the traditional pimento or with almonds, capers, even anchovies.

Spain is the world's largest producer and exporter of table olives. The biggest share of the exports - some 45 percent - go to the United States. The countries of the European Community take 35 to 37 percent of the exports. In all, Spain exports olives to 64 countries.

International competition is heating up. Spaniards now also grow California-style black olives and export them to the US, much to the consternation of California growers. So far, these imported black olives don't command the premium price of whole, US-produced olives. They usually are chopped up and used in prepared foods like frozen pizzas. But "we consider them competitors," says David Daniels, manager of the California Olive Committee, which represents some 1,400 US growers.

Until 1982, there were no imports of California-style olives into the US, he says. But a small domestic crop in 1981 caused the food industry to turn to Spain. The exports have kept coming ever since.

Both countries worry about a third, "upstart" competitor.

"We are very much afraid of Morocco," Carmona says. Although at the moment that nation's crop remains small and of poor quality, the country has grand plans to expand production.

Olives probably originated in Syria and were carried around the Mediterranean by Romans and Arabs. Phoenicians introduced them to Spain. They thrived in the warm, dry climate, as did the farmers who produced them. At the end of the 19th century, growers here started producing the Spanish-style olive on an industrial scale. An important new industry was born.

Today, industry is passing the olive by. Houses and factories are springing up where olive groves used to stand. Modern forces are also changing farming methods. A generation ago, men rode horses into the groves to check their crops. Now growers like De Rojas make their rounds in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Even the workmen travel the grove by motorcycle instead of donkey.

Like everywhere else in the developed world, fewer and fewer young people are going into farming.

De Rojas is one of the notable exceptions. He talks excitedly about the farm, the crop, and its history. His favorite way to eat olives comes from Greece. He gesticulates while he describes it: a layer of smashed olives on a dish, then a layer of salt on top, then another layer of smashed olives, squeezed to take out all the juice. Add a little vinegar, a little oil, and voilia! The ultimate olive dish for an olive grower.

Those of us wanting a bit more variety might try the adjoining recipes. They are only the beginning, of course, as any Spaniard will tell you. "There are thousands and thousands of formulas to prepare the olive," Carmona says. Each Andalusian family has its own recipe - a pinch of garlic or dill in the brine - to transform this small, immature fruit into an enduring family tradition.

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