I have purchased, for €6, a copy of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and I am finding it a delightful companion, one that shares my whimsy and romanticism.
Of Andalusia, he says:
“For the greater part it is a stern, melancholy country, with rugged mountains and long sweeping plains, destitute of trees, and indescribably silent and lonesome, partaking of the silent and solitary character of Africa.”
Well, I can say that this is true, although I would compare it first with my homeland, of which old Irving would probably share the same opinion. However, we lack-
There are around 300 million olive trees in Spain, and we just visited the home of about five thousand of them at the Basilippo plantation outside of Sevilla.
I noticed olive trees as soon as we landed in Madrid. They hold the place taken by junipers in the Rockies, marching over the foothills of the mountains and down into the valleys in gentle ranks.
Many of these olive trees are centuries old. One fellow at the plantation was six hundred and fifty! He stood before the kitchen door before the discovery of the New World, before the Reconquista, while Spain was still ruled by the Moors and Europeans were bumbling around up north. Apparently the oldest tree in Spain is fifteen-hundred yeas old, and grows near the French border.
Our very Mediterranean guide showed us his rows of unassuming trees, pointing out the hard little midsummer olives. “We say we are talking to de trees for nine months, becoze is a relationship- da tree is da factory dat produce da extra firgin oliff oil, and we are just extract.” (I liked this very much)
He then described the old practice of hitting the trees with sticks to harvest the olives in a net, but now, “If we been talkin’ to da tree for nine months, you think then we gonna fight da tree? No! We shake.” And he demonstrated by shaking the branches enthusiastically.
Later, he took us into a low, spacious room with diagrams of fats, all declaiming the superiority of “oliff oil,” and showed us tiny models of historical presses.
These were wonderful. The first was the Molina that was used from ancient times all the way to the eighteenth century. This assembly of mats and heavy stones was an ingenious use of solar energy from the donkey’s breakfast of field grass. A later model from the industrial revolution ran on a water wheel (and how valuable are water rights in all times-both bread and oil mills ran on hydropower).
Well, energy of sun and stream have now been replaced with a power grid connected to assorted sources of power. We saw both solar and wind farms on our way through Andalusia. Today’s electric mills use a centrifuge to separate the oil, water and solids that compose the olives, so the product is pure enough to allow fine flavors to emerge from the green oil like timid fairies. The Roman Emperors never tasted anything close.
It always amazes me to remember that even a poor person in an industrialized nation lives better than an ancient emperor. Not only is our olive oil free of stone dust and donkey hairs, our cheapest wines would have had the Caesars singing. Even a royal handmaiden would never have had a room of her own, while toddlers are given their own bedrooms today. Sanitation was unknown, privacy was a joke, and olive oil with flavors of grass, tomato and “a hint of banana on the nose” was unheard of. Whatever we mean when we say “the good old days,” we aren’t talking about anything, you know, real.
For more on the historical hardships of everyday life, please read Bill Bryson’s magnificent At Home: a short history of private life.