Olive oil in Argentina: a skirted history

Photo credit: USDA

Photo credit: USDA

As with all the very best legends, the genesis of olive oil in Argentina is perfectly queer. The tale goes that when the Spanish decided Argentina should no longer have their own olive oil, they rampaged the country tearing out the olive trees in the late 1600s. One crafty native lady in Almogasta, La Rioja, didn’t want to see olive trees disappear from her land and so with the best will in the world, she shoved one up her skirt.

Colorful fabric billowing, the Spaniards didn’t notice this olive tree sapling hidden under her delicates and they rode on to terrorize the next village. Thanks to the cunning trickery of this riojana woman the olive tree survived, and all of Argentina’s olive trees are said to have come from this one mother sapling. This particular olive tree is also said to have spawn Argentina’s first and only native species, the Arauco.

It is no surprise that the lady wanted to obscure the precious olive tree and keep it growing in her home land considering olive oil’s long and austere past – one filled with passion, trickery and war torn lands. Cultivated since at least 5000BC, olive oil has been one of the most precious and treasured commodities in history. Aside from nutritional, medicinal and practical uses, it was seen as a symbol of wealth, power and glory.

Homer referred to it as ‘liquid gold’ in The Odyssey, which is one of the first mentions of this juice in around 850BC. Ancient Greek athletes would rub it into their skin before fights to remain unscathed and protect them from the sun; while the Spartans would rub it into theirs when working out in order to lure a few wayward eyes. Olive oil was anointed on the heads of kings, martyrs and saints, and it was dripped into tombs of important figures to lubricate their drying bones, including those of Tutankhamen. It was always revered as a luxury product and at one point it was worth its own weight in gold literally as a trading tool. With records of cultivation stretching back 7000 years, olive oil has played a significant role in history and is part of the essential culinary fabric of Europe and Middle East, where you can still find trees dating back to Biblical times.

Production in Argentina began in the mid 1500s as the homesick Spanish immigrants wanted to emulate their own cooking from home, which relied heavily on olive oil. Production grew, the groves blossomed with the country’s bounteous sunshine and it too became part of everyday life for Argentineans. But as with all highly revered things, jealousy festered and the Spanish tore down the trees they themselves had introduced. They wanted to avoid losing their own stake back in Spain in this prestigious industry. Thanks to the native skirt smuggler, olive oil production reignited, continued and was later bolstered by a new influx of European immigrants, who still wanted to cook like at home. After bearing the brunt of a 20 year dip in the 70s due to economy issues and poor quality blending with low cost oils, Argentina now has over 110,000 hectares of olive trees, produces around 100,000 tons of olive oil and is one of the premium producers exporting to around 30 countries worldwide.

With increasing prestige around the globe and a growing clutch of awards, Argentina’s reputation as a quality olive oil producer is certainly improving. However another potential olive oil crisis is looming as the country struggles to compete with increasingly lower European prices (due to the economic crisis and overproduction); complex importation laws making foreign machinery expensive to bring in; and trade embargoes with countries who are fed up of Argentina’s own trade embargoes against them. Whether the country will be able to sustain earning gold for their olive oil is a questionable matter, but for now Argentina’s delicious olive oil is certainly liquid gold itself, and all thanks to a sneaky lady and her skirt.

By Amanda Barnes

Published in the December 2012/January 2013 edition of Wine Republic

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