Spain is good at processing olives! It should be, they've been doing it for hundreds of years.
It is the world's number one producer and exporter of table olives, accounting for about a third of all world production.
The Spanish love their olives so they keep half of their production for themselves. The other half they share out among the rest of us. Aren't we lucky!
As a rough guide, around 75% of total production is green olives and 25% is black or coloured.
Olive trees need space, sunshine and room to grow. The best olives come from low-growing trees which enables the fruit to mature properly. In traditional groves there are fewer trees per acre and they are fertilised with horse manure, watered sparingly and harvested by hand.
High volume producers cram in many more trees per acre, use chemical fertilizers for high yield and harvest the olives by machine. As we are primarily concerned with using our olives for tapas, we will naturally want the best quality olives and oils.
The harvesting occurs in September and October after the sun has done its job and ripened them to perfection. By then the olives will be full size but the colour will not yet have changed.
In keeping with a long tradition, the branches of the olive tree are beaten with long sticks and the ripe fruit falls into nets that have been spread out around the base of the trees. Only the fully-ripe, undamaged olives being used for the best oils. Machines are never used for top-quality olive oil because they bruise the fruit and damage the precious trees.
It is a common mis-conception that olives, once ripened and picked, are edible. They are not! Believe me, I’ve tried it with my own olives and it’s not a pleasant experience. They are very tough and extremely bitter.
Before you can eat them you must first cure your olives.
The curing process for green olives consists of hydrolysis, leaching and fermentation. This process for green olives includes soaking the olives in an alkaline solution first to remove the bitter tannins. They are then leached for about a month, or until ready, in fresh water which is changed on an almost daily basis to remove any impurities.
The olives are then placed in huge underground vats, covered with a strong salt brine and left to ferment for 60-90 days. Fermentation converts the natural sugars, and some added sugar, to lactic acid.
Once the pH drops to 3.7 and the lactic acid is over 5%, the olives are ready to be prepared and packaged. To retain their yellow-green hue the olives are kept in a salt brine and are never exposed to oxygen.
At this point they go their separate ways to be canned, bottled, stuffed and sliced prior to being delivered to specialist suppliers, your local deli and supermarkets across the world.
All this work just so that you and I can enjoy their rich heritage and unique taste.