The Phoenicians first brought olive trees across the Mediterranean to Portugal and the Romans were successful in cultivating the groves and pressing the olives to attain the precious oil. Today, olive trees are a regular feature of the Portuguese landscape, with the annual harvest taking place midway between the autumn grape harvest and Christmas.
After the Romans, the production of olive oil continued under the Visigoths but it was during the 500-year Arab occupation of Portugal that consumption flourished.
In Portuguese, the word for olive oil is azeite, derived from the Arabic al-zait and az-zait, literally translating as ‘olive juice’.
Since the Middle Ages, olives have played a major role in Portugal’s agricultural industry, rivalling the growing of wheat and vines.
Olive oil is one of nature’s finest products and has many desirable effects on the body’s biochemistry with recent studies highlighting its health-giving qualities.
Rich in vitamin E and mono-unsaturated fat, its principal component is oleic acid which lowers cholesterol as it is processed into the body, meaning that it is generally good for the heart.
In Portugal, olive oil is used liberally for cooking and in recent years culinary styles have changed due to the growing influence and popularity of Mediterranean cuisine.
With over 50,000 tonnes produced annually, much of Portugal’s olive oil is produced for the sardine canning industry but it is still a staple feature on restaurant cruet-stands and is an essential ingredient in many of Portugal’s favourite dishes like bacalhau cozido em azeite (boiled cod cooked in olive oil).
Portugal is quickly gaining an enviable reputation for producing a wide range of excellent and full-flavoured organic olive oil up and down the country, many of which turn out to be fresh and fruity with a deliciously perfumed and complex taste.
Many of Portugal’s olive groves date back hundreds of years, with some individual trees found to be well over one thousand years old, but modern production methods have reduced the yields of more recently-planted groves to three to seven years compared with more than ten years in times gone by.
Once upon a time, the olive’s exquisite silver-leaf tree needed twenty-five years to bear fruit and any severe late-spring frosts would delay the process even further.
Ideally gathered when the colour begins metamorphising from green to black, and the texture’s smooth but not quite fully ripe, olives are then dried in the shade for up to three days.
The first pressing is done lightly to yield oil of the highest quality (unpurified and known as ‘extra virgin olive oil’) while the second, heavier pressing produces oil in far greater quantities.
Museums dedicated to the theme of olive oil production can be found in some of the most fertile parts of Portugal where olive oil is a particularly vital crop, such as Bobadela (indicated on the map below), Belmonte and Moura.