Oil in Southern Aragon over the Course of History
The history of the olive tree in Southern Aragon is very similar to its history throughout Mediterranean area, given its proximity to this area and its particular climate, which is similar to that of the Levante region. It may have been introduced by the Phoenicians or Greeks but what we do know is that it was not very widely grown until the arrival of Scipio, as can be deduced from Avienus’ Ora Maritima, in which the river Ebro is referred to as “oleum flumen”, or “oil river”.
The olive-growing wealth of the area of Alcañiz (Southern Aragon) is demonstrated by its magnificent thousands-year-old trees. These trees are among the oldest in Spain and were introduced into the area during the Roman domination. The incentive with which the aldermen of Aragon rewarded the cultivation of the olive tree in the form of Real de Vellón , which each town hall was obliged to pay per “planzón” or olive grove one year after it was planted and had taken root, was decisive for the definitive settling of this tree in the area. In this way, leafy olive trees gradually began to cover mountain areas and plains in the region, the boundaries of which were marked by the soils and the atmospheric agents, due to the demands of the trees themselves, to the benefit of the farmers; today (in the mid 20th century), these areas produce an average annual harvest of eight million kilograms. In those times, animal-driven Arabic mills were used to extract the oil and hand-operated beam presses to deal with the harvest, until the French introduced new manufacturing techniques around 1866 and the oils began to become less turbid and acidic.
The oil-making tradition was introduced through Rosas, Ampurias and Tarragona (Beltrán Lloris, 1980) and it may have been in the first half of the 16th century when the olive tree reached its maximum development potential. It appears in fact to have been more widely planted than it is today, as can be seen from some olive grove remains in the area. The War of Independence brought about tree felling and a reduction in numbers, which was later exacerbated by heavy frosts in 1936-37 and subsequently again in 1956 and the uprooting of olive trees in order to introduce the mechanisation of unirrigated lands. From this time the olive tree entered a phase of depression and other crops were given priority.
This area was fairly isolated due to poor communications and was largely ignored by outsiders; it only began to be appreciated when the business was industrialised in the “Tortosa market”, in which important firms operated and our oils flowed there in streams of carts, which is why the origin of their wealth will always be traced back to this market. Subsequently, at the beginning of the 20th century, several commercial firms from Marseille, Nice, Genoa, etc. set up with their warehouses at the Alcañiz market to acquire our oil quality directly, due to its undisputed excellence, and once the ice had been broken, all the commercial firms in Catalonia and Levante began to compete to acquire them.
And today, (half way through the century), according to the official provisions, Alcañiz as an origin stands out as unique and is associated with the highest value; its unparalleled quality is already renowned worldwide and this oil leaves for the overseas market with the name of its origin, or does credit with its coupages to many of the commercial brands of most noble descent and fame.
Its oils are also used in the most prestigious fish preserve brands and a large amount is used in the top-class catering industry, as well as satisfying the needs of the domestic consumer, who demands top quality.
There is not a single old manor in which one cannot find remains of the former presses in which olives were stored, well spun to get rid of the moisture (vegetable water) and air and provide good conservation conditions, because with the former extraction means it was common to add the stored harvest to the newly collected olives.
(XIII International Olive-Growing Congress, area of Alcañiz (Southern Aragon) 1950 and El Aceite de Oliva Virgin (Virgin Olive Oil), Juan José Murillo Ramos, 1993).
Olive oil is one of the most characteristic products of Southern Aragon. Olive growing originally played the role of solving seasonal unemployment as agricultural workers devoted themselves to this activity during the winter months when there was little work in the recent intensive fruit culture boom.
The climatic conditions, on the one hand, and the characteristics of the Empeltre variety, which is almost the only variety grown in the area, lead to an oil of great Quality.
The cultivation of the olive tree in the province of Teruel is determined by ecological factors (limitation determined by the climate) to the extensive natural area of Southern Aragon. The figure of the olive tree across the length and breadth of the fields and hills of the Low Land has been traditional for centuries and has played an important role over the years in the development of the economy of this region, exerting a decisive influence on the life and customs of its peoples.
(Olive Tree Seminar, Oil Quality and Marketing. October 19th and 20th 1983)
The olive tree is the large flower of the valleys of Southern Aragon and on its low, stony hills. It is the expression of the work and knowledge of man in area where water is scarce and the land is not always a good companion. The people of Southern Aragon know that it is the tree of wisdom, the tree of history, the tree of the Mediterranean. They have learned tradition and technique from it, as well as perseverance and endurance. This is why it has always nested on their hillocks.
The Southern Aragonese olive tree has a family name: Empeltre. This is the variety that is cultivated there.
The best olive trees in Spain grow in limy, cool and deep soils. The lands in this area of Southern Aragon are included in the dry limy group.
There are two wonderful books that refer to Southern Aragon during this period (the period of the First Carlist War 1833-1839), to the Maestrazgo to be precise, but it also mentions towns and villages from the true Southern Aragon region. These are the Conde de Garay’s book on the Maestrazgo and Pio Baroja’s book La Venta de Mirambel.
…historically, besides the trauma involved in the provincial division, as the Low Land is almost all in Teruel, although part of it is also in Zaragoza.
(El Bajo Aragón Expoliado (Southern Aragon Plundered), a report directed by Mario Gabiria. 1977.)
In the book Alimentos de Aragón, un patrimonio cultural (Foods of Aragon, a Cultural Heritage) (1997) there is a reference from Ignacio of Asso (1798) in which he says literally: “There is no doubt that Empeltre olive trees were already known in the District of Alcañiz more than 160 years ago, as Gerónimo Ardid in his Restauro de la Agricultura (Restoration of Agriculture), which he wrote in 1640, refers to Smelters, known as grafted olive trees, and offers to publish the way of grafting and multiplying them; however, we do not know if this new variety had its origin in that area or if it was brought in from elsewhere”.
We also have very valuable handwritten documents dated 1823 and 1826.
The manuscript dated October 6th 1826, addressed to King Fernando VII, in which “Juan de Dios Poneba on behalf of Messrs José and Antonio Exerique, neighbours of the village of Valdealgorfa, District of Alcañiz, in the Reign of Aragón”, requests that the King continue to grant the grace and permission for them to continue crushing olives in his mill. Clear evidence of the importance of olive trees in the District of Alcañiz (currently Southern Aragon) is the great number of mills there were and the disputes to which they gave rise. As literally recounted “In the town of Valdealgorfa in an abundant year, according to a conservative estimate, between sixteen and twenty thousand millfuls of olives were usually harvested.”
In Valdealgorfa alone, from what is described in this manuscript, there was the “Molino del Común” or “de los Propios” (Common or Public Mills), in 1773 permission was granted to the nuns of Saint Clare’s convent to build their mill. On November 18th 1797 permission was granted to Mr Antonio Ardid, and there was also the mill that was the subject of dispute in the document referred to.
In the book “El Bajo Aragon Expoliado” the following appears: “It is said that in 1911 thirty million kilos of oil were produced in Southern Aragon. Other data from 1929 mention that Spain consumed 250 million litres of oil. At that time in Calaceite alone it is said that there were 34 factories and that in one year income from olives amounted to 1,600,000 pesetas, not counting the olives that were taken to be milled elsewhere. Without venturing to make any judgment on the production capacity of those factories, these high figures indicate extraordinary activity around this crop. Each town then had its mill or mills. There was usually a “Molino de la Villa” or village mill and also the “Molino del Señor” or Lord’s mill.
To continue digging into the past to discover the importance of olive oil in Southern Aragon, the capital of which is Alcañiz, I shall refer to several quotes from the book Elaboración of the oil de Olive (Olive Oil Processing), by Mr Isidoro Aguiló y Cortés dated 1918.
“When making a judgment on the processing of oils and once we had discovered its benefits and shortcomings, we understood that the best way for this work to be beneficial to the country was to also visit and get to know the areas of recognised renown in oil processing in Catalonia and Southern Aragon …”
“In other more developed areas, due to the exacting request of the oil manufactures who buy the olives, the fruit is collected by hand, by the milking system and in the amount that the manufacture is capable of manufacturing the following day. This is already common practice in Alcañiz…”
“Both in Reus and in Borjas and Alcañiz, where the oil is made from unique varieties, Arbequina and Empeltre…”
Because of the world fame enjoyed by the oils of Southern Aragon, and especially those of Alcañiz, which are leading oils in Spain, due to their quality and higher price on the market, we have been wanting to get to know them for some time…”
“One leaves Alcañiz convinced of the fact that if the olive-growing regions in our country were held in sufficiently high esteem, simply by keeping their own characteristics, Spain would be, as it should be, the leading country in the world with regard to this product”
“Moreover the olive-growing area of Alcañiz, Castelserás, Valdealgorfa, Torrecilla de Alcañiz and Torrevelilla, where manufacturers from Alcañiz, Caspe, Escatrón, Hijar and Albalate del Arzobispo buy their olives every year, are notable centres and their manufacture is quite regular, especially the latter, which is quite rightly renowned.”
“Some important points are Calaceite, Maella and Valderrobres. The latter is a manufacturing centre, to which people travel from Valjunquera, La Fresneda, La Portellada, Ráfales Fórnoles, Fuentespalda, Beceite. Calanda and Alcorisa manufacture their production with great success”
“In this centre a wonderful combination of Catalan and Alcañiz intellectual factors have given rise to a considerable group of manufacturers who have not lacked the intelligence or the capital to take oil processing to perfection; this perfection has spread to the other factories, where the processing technique is also quite good.”
“Oils obtained from the second pressing and used for internal consumption here would be highly valued as oils from the first pressing by other areas.”
“An important note.- According to recently acquired data, Alcorisa and the other towns that form the border of the olive area in the Southern Aragon region, make up an area which, due to its climatic conditions, topographical situation and constant, extremely regular harvests, form a special combination of natural energies in olive-growing.”
The Quality of the olive oils from Southern Aragon is well known and has been renowned for many years and in fact many commercial establishments exploit this fame and use the name Bajo Aragón to attract custom. COLMADOS SIMÓ, ALEMANY, PI Y CIA S en C, in 1931 was already advertised in the Sociedad de Atracción de Forasteros (Society for Attracting Outsiders) of Barcelona in the following manner:
“Warehouse and refinery of Pure Olive Oils. We only operate with the areas of Urgel, Tortosa and Alcañiz (Southern Aragon), because these are the most appreciated areas due to their minimum acidity, fine aroma and delicate bouquet.”
Proof of the fact that at the beginning of the last century olive oil from Southern Aragon was already known internationally is this passage from the book El Bajo Aragón Expoliado, which tells us.
“Before 1936 in Andalusia the current milling capacity did not exist. Its oils are very deficient as far as the degree of acidity is concerned. As there were not many refineries, oil from Southern Aragon was provided with a perfect opening to the market because with its low acidity and sweetness it counterbalanced the high acidity of Andalusia oil. It was automatically considered as the best oil for seasoning all the broths that were consumed on the national market and even on the export market. This circumstance also applies to Italian oils and for this reason oil from Southern Aragon was extremely appropriate for the overseas market, not as a fortifier, but for “coupage”.
At the 13th International Olive-Growing Congress, held in the area of Alcañiz (Southern Aragon) November 9th 1950, it was said:
“By virtue of the official prices, our oils stand out as the best in Spain”.
The price of oil from Southern Aragon at that time was 10.50 pesetas a kilo and that of the rest of the olive-growing area was 9.80 pesetas a kilo.
Some years later, in the book Tratado de olivicultura (Treatise on Olive Cultivation) of the National Olive Union, Madrid 1954 the following is expressed:
“For our part, we are of the opinion that the variety itself plays just as influential a role as the land and the climate in this result. Thus we see what fine oils are produced in limey lands, which are predominant in the olive groves of Southern Aragon, with the Empeltre variety generalised throughout.”
“The most widely cultivated variety in Southern Aragon and the one that gave rise to the world fame of this oil known as oil from Alcañiz, is Empeltre.”.
In any event, the definitive testimony of Daniel Mangrané Escardó (El Aceite de Oliva en España (Olive Oil in Spain), Espasa Calpe, 1961) in one of the most serious scientific treatises on this vegetable fat in our country, was decisive in the evaluation of oil from Alcañiz. “This area”, he says “can be considered as the producer of the best table oil in the world. “Fine” oils from Southern Aragon are slightly yellowish. At the start of the campaign, when the oil is extracted from less ripe olives, its flavour is slightly “fruity”, meaning that the taste and perfume recall the fragrance of the fruit of the olive tree. As the campaign progresses, due to the gradual ripening of the olive, the oils that are obtained have a very pleasant, slightly sweet flavour ... At present magnificent oils are still manufactured there.”
The book El Bajo Aragón Expoliado published in 1976, tells us: “It has happened, for example, that oil from Southern Aragon has been taken to Housewives’ meetings in Madrid at the request of those attending. In response to this request, oil was taken there for selling purposes and in one year 350,000 litres were sold at the price of 108 pesetas, in Olive Union shops; this 0.4º oil was impeccable.
The Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (Great Aragonese Encyclopaedia) from 1980 under the entry Bajo Aragón, says: “The land is mostly unirrigated, where vast, typically cereal-type crops alternate with olive groves, of long tradition in the area; these trees produce oil of renowned quality …”.
The Enciclopedia temática de Aragón (Thematic Encyclopaedia of Aragon) published in 1987, volume 5, under the same heading (Bajo Aragón), says: “The olive-growing area par excellence is the Southern Aragon area of Zaragoza and Teruel, where these trees account for over 10 % of the cultivated lands in most municipalities and in some cases over 25%…”.
In the Boletín Informativo de la Diputación Provincial de Teruel (Teruel Provincial Council Information Bulletin), January - March 1988. The following is pointed out: “Teruel, and the area of Southern Aragon in particular has been and continues to be one of the provinces in which olive growing has been deeply rooted from time immemorial. Years of wide-scale planting of olive groves were followed, more recently, by years of abandonment of trees, in some cases of hundred-year-old trees, brought about by the irregularity of harvests, the exhaustion of the farmers, the lack of water and, above all, the lack of profitability. Although this trend may not have been fully reversed, at least it has come to a standstill and, for example in the area of Alcañiz, 6,000 new Empeltre trees – the best known variety in the area – were planted in the last year.
The Provincial Council of Teruel, aware of the social and economic importance of olive growing in our province, has been working in recent years on the improvement of olive groves in Teruel, through two main lines of support: on the one hand the acquisition of olive-tree seedlings and, on the other, renovation pruning”.
“The only organoleptic difference between all these virgin olive oils is the variation in the degree; they are extremely suitable for direct consumption or for coupage with other olive oils, due to their pleasant fruity taste. Their excellent qualities make them ideal for consumption as is, in salads, or as seasoning in other dishes.”
Access to support from the EAGGF - Guidance Section - for the various olive-oil mills in Southern Aragon has led to the elimination and/or reuse of pollutant waste and has also helped to improve virgin olive oil processing, storage and packaging conditions. In this way the extraction industries are provided with the necessary infrastructure to guarantee that they will obtain a quality product appropriate to be marketed in a technically, economically and commercially viable way, thus obtaining greater added value.
Proof of the prevailing interest in this topic is the publishing by the Instituto of Estudios Turolenses (Teruel Studies Institute) of the Provincial Council of Teruel, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of a monographic Cartilla Turolense (Teruel Handbook), on oil in Southern Aragon, number 16, published in 1993, devised by Mr Angel Bonilla Polo, Mr Francisco Grande Covián, Mr Juan José Murillo Ramos and Mr Bernabé Sanz Pérez.
Another book, also published in 1993 and devoted to the oils of Southern Aragon is the book by Juan José Murillo Ramos: El Aceite de Oliva Virgen (Virgin Olive Oil).
There have recently been countless publications and press releases on olive oil in Southern Aragon and its qualities, as is shown by an excerpt from the weekly supplement of El País, in which the following appeared in the “Saber vivir” (“Knowing how to live”) section: “Alcañiz: Teruel capital of the Southern Aragon area, one of the main olive-oil producing regions of the north of the Iberian Peninsula, with tradition and renown in its oils, which for centuries have been processed mainly with the Empeltre variety.” In an issue of the magazine Surcos we are told: “They are reaping the benefits of producing an oil of excellent quality, which is gaining increasing appreciation, due both to its gastronomic characteristics and its contribution to establishing a more balanced and healthy Mediterranean diet.”
In recent years, the awakening of the business sector in this area has materialised in the constitution of the non-profit Association A.D.A.B.A (Association for the defence and promotion of Bajo Aragón olive oil), under the auspices of the Instituto Aragonés de Fomento (Aragonese Development Institute), and pursuant to article 22 of the Spanish Constitution and of Law 191/64 on Associations, granting a memorandum and articles of association on December 17th 1996,. Currently comprised of 11 members, it is headquartered in Alcañiz (Teruel). Among the primary activities of the Association, as stated in its articles of association, are:
- The promotion of a joint designation for the oils of the area.
- The promotion of knowledge about oil from very young ages, encouraging contact with schools.
- The establishment and maintenance of prizes for the highest quality oils in the area.
- Encouragement of the existence of an appropriate quality control system and a laboratory.
- Development of a training programme for businesspeople and employees in the sector.
- Encouragement of joint purchase of production items such as containers, etc.
- Development of promotional activities to bring the industry closer to the general public through the creation and maintenance of an “Fiesta de la Almazara”.
Besides these activities, the Association can carry out any other activity that is planned in accordance with the purposes for which it is created.
In this line of activity and among other activities, as well as celebrating the “Fiesta de la Almazara” each year, which is hosted alternately by the different towns of the associates, A.D.A.B.A. has attended the Ham and Quality Teruel Foods Fairs and the Zaragoza fair and has published numerous advertisements and articles in the press.
Aware of the quality of the oils in the area and in response to the sector’s request to obtain access to retail markets with the quality products and correct presentation that are required by the guarantee we wish to offer the consumer of the product being offered, it was proposed to constitute a panel of tasters of virgin olive oil from Southern Aragon with the aim of obtaining the Designation of Origin; this project has received the support of all the sectors involved.
By Order of June 16th 1998 of the Dept. of Agriculture and the Environment, the Panel of Tasters of virgin olive oil from Aragon was set up (B.O.A. 1-07-1998).
The tasting hall and the booths and additional premises were constructed pursuant to standard COI/t.20 doc. No. 6 of June 18th 1987 in a building of the Regional Agro-Environmental Office of the Dept. of Agriculture and the Environment of Alcañiz (Teruel).
PLastly, we would point out that in the Carta de Aceites de Oliva Virgen Extra (Extra Virgin Olive Oil Map), recently published by the Asociación Española de Municipios del Olivo (Spanish Association of Olive-Tree Municipalities), the European Network of Olive-Tree Municipalities, the Jaén Provincial Council and the Association of Businesspeople from Catering, Tourism and Related Companies of the province of Jaén, “Aceites del Bajo Aragón” made with the Empeltre variety are included and the description refers to them as having a sweet flavour and being very fluid and smooth on the palate. There is no reference to bitterness or harshness.
The map states the following: “The oils contained in this map are all extra quality virgin olive oils; they are absolutely natural and obtained directly from the fruit of the olive tree and processed by means of mechanical or physical procedures, at low temperature, which means that their characteristics and composition are not in the least altered and their vitamin and essential fatty acid content, their smell, colour and genuine taste remain intact.
They come from olive groves located in the municipalities that currently make up what is known as AEMO (Spanish Association of Olive-Tree Municipalities) territory, from areas of renowned quality and Designation of Origin and/or special protection.
The different varieties of olive trees and the different agricultural and climatic conditions of each area endow the oils with features that are worthy of the delight of the most exquisite palates.”