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My family settled in England in 1959, when I was 11 years old. We came from Cyprus - where the use of olive oil was an everyday habit - to the UK, where olive oil was only available from chemists in tiny bottles. I remember that it was recommended for ear ache - a teaspoon of oil was warmed slightly, poured into the ear and a wad of cotton wool added to ensure that the oil stayed in the ear and did its work.

Now, supermarkets stock an enormous range of olive oils, with Italian producers much in evidence. There's a multitude of recipes which obligate the use of olive oil. You will find a bottle of olive oil lurking in most kitchen cupboards and, in Italian restaurants, the practice of starting a meal by dipping a slice of bread into a dish of olive oil (some like to add a little salt) is a must.

There’s something holy about the use of olive oil; it represents healing and calm; it’s ancient, it’s a gift from nature and, of course, it is an integral part of the now-revered - and widely recognised as healthy - Mediterranean diet.

Being a tour operator specialising in the Mediterranean, we have several accommodation suppliers who are involved in tourism in the summer and, in the winter, devote their time and energy to the olive harvest. Thanasis, our main Greek accommodation guru, has his own trees and habitually used to send us several 17-litre tins of olive oil every winter, until Brexit made it just too expensive, and paperwork-heavy, to continue to do so. In the meantime, all of us at Sunvil became hooked on this regular, plentiful and high-quality supply. I even planted an olive tree in the office garden - fond hopes!

For 2022, Sunvil is launching a new programme in the Subbetica region of Andalucia. The Subbetica lies between Malaga, on the south coast of Spain, and Cordoba, a 90-minute drive to the north. It is a magical region, a real Sunvil discovery, and an area - like the Alentejo in Portugal - that people tend just to drive through on their way to somewhere else, without realising what they are missing.

Zuheros, Subbetica Zuheros, Subbetica

It’s a historically rich yet intensely rural region, with a magnificent natural park covering a third of the area. You will find the prettiest of white villages topped with ancient Moorish castles, comfortable small hotels serving excellent local dishes, and a local population curious to meet you. English is not widely spoken, except by the young and by those in tourism, but it is not a problem. If you enjoy walking, cycling and love nature, and/or have a passion for ancient castles and beautiful villages, and/or great food, wine and olive oil, then I challenge you to find anywhere better.

And here olives trees grow. And when I say olives, it’s hills and mountains full of olive trees, which stretch to the horizon. Hundreds of thousands, millions upon millions of olive trees, line after line, hillside after hillside, until you can barely comprehend what you are seeing - different patterns are formed, like embroidery on a grand scale, according to the style, or preference, of each farmer.

Cycling in Subbetica Cycling in Subbetica
Olive groves, Subbetica Olive groves, Subbetica

To put it into perspective, Spain is responsible for around 60% of the world’s olive oil production - and 75% of that comes from Andalucia. Andalucia therefore produces around 35% to 40% of world production, which is roughly the same as that produced by Italy and Greece combined. The Jaen province of Andalucia, which lies north of Subbetica, is the biggest producer in terms of volume, but Subbetica - and especially the region around Priego de Cordoba - is regarded as the region that produces the world’s best olive oils. The ‘Denomination of Origin for Olive Oil’ in Priego de Cordoba has won far more awards than any other (see the two links below) and has been the number one olive oil worldwide for the past 10 years.

Life, however, is not easy for olive oil producers; there is, strangely, very little financial premium attached to the quality of the oil. Generally, margins are terrible - the olive oil is simply sold too cheaply for what is a high-quality natural product. Much of the Spanish olive oil produced is sold by the tanker-load to Italy. As a result, you will see, on bottles of olive oil from Italy, a label stating ’Produce of the European Union’, meaning that it is a blended product.

In Roman times, Italy could not produce enough olive oil for its citizens; it was Andalucia that filled the gap, as outlined in the article below from Archaeology Magazine, regarding the city of Rome importing olive oil from Andalucia in terracotta amphorae. Monte Testaccio, in Rome, is formed of 25 million discarded amphorae which originally contained olive oil from Andalucia. They were early one-use-only vessels, created with a tax code of some kind etched on them to verify that they had been shipped correctly. That meant that they had to be smashed once the oil had been decanted… a treasure trove, now, for archaeologists.

If you are keen to learn more, then you can ask all the questions you might wish on one of our olive oil experiences, which are an interesting option as part of our holidays to the Subbetica. You can explore an olive farm, learn about the different types of tree, enjoy an outdoor picnic - even "help", as I did, with the harvest (harvesting starts in November or December and runs until about the end of February).

We also enjoyed glorious blue skies and sunshine, with superb sunsets each evening - well worth the trip alone, without the many other delights we experienced!

 

Noel Josephides

By Noel Josephides

24th January 2022



Noel Josephides
Noel Josephides

Noel is Sunvil’s Chairman. Born in Cyprus in 1948, he joined John der Parthog at Sunvil in 1973. Before that and following university, he spent 3 years as a trainee buyer at C&A Modes and then worked for a large Cypriot builder and property developer for whom he set up a London Office buying electrical components for the Middle East and importing lemons from orchards in Cyprus. He still researches new destinations for Sunvil and is heavily involved in matters relating to the travel industry. He is a previous chairman of ABTA, a long standing director and previous chairman of The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) and the current chairman of The Travel Foundation - the travel industry’s sustainability charity.

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