At Farah Trading Co, we cannot get enough of Portuguese olive oil. While a daily staple and our top selling import, the history and modern day production of this "liquid gold" is often overlooked. Learn about the early history, tumultuous trade and what makes Portuguese olive oil today so special.
Olive trees have been cultivated since 5,000 BC, starting in Iran, Syria and Palestine and further spread by the Roman Empire spread across the Mediterranean basin into Portugal, where these drought, fire, and decay-resistant trees thrive.
The Moors fine-tuned oliviculture in Portugal from the 1700s onwards. The Portuguese word for olive oil, azeite, actually hails from al-zeit, the Arabic word for “olive juice”.
Over centuries, olive oil became an integral part of the Mediterranean diet and economy, considered “liquid gold” as it’s not easy to produce nor cheap to consume and was cherished and traded as a source of nutrition, medicine and even fuel for lighting in the mid-1500s.
Today, Portuguese consume an annual average of 8 liters of olive oil per person.
An Uphill Olive Battle in Portugal
Italians and Spanish used to purchase and resell Portuguese olive oil as their own, hence its lack of an international reputation. Portuguese olive oil production also nose-dived in the 1960s with the introduction of margarine, a cheaper and allegedly healthier fat.
When Portugal joined the EU in 1986, the government further offered farmers subsidies to destroy unprofitable olive groves throughout Portugal to make better agricultural use of the land.
An heirloom century old olive tree in Alentejo which survived Portugal's tumulus olive history
Regulation to the Rescue
In the early 2000s, piggybacking on quality olive oil’s growing international reputation as a “healthy food” and even a luxury good, Portuguese government officials and businessmen started to invest in the production and promotion of their national olive oil, an icon of Portuguese culture and gastronomy, for a price closer to what it’s worth and what could make them money (although Portuguese olive oil is still super affordable!).
Focus turned to the remaining olive trees that were planted on Douro Valley’s stone-wall terraces to replace phylloxera ravaged vineyards in the late 1800s, and in Southern Portugal to support the 1900s sardine canning industry boom.
Portugal's Olive Oil Today - 6 Protected DOPs
Today, Portugal’s six olive oil DOPs (Protected Designation of Origin) win gold medals at international competitions and adorn Michelin haute-cuisine and, since 2016, Portugal has been the world’s 8th largest quality olive oil producer - Portuguese olive oil is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.
Alentejo is Portugal’s largest olive oil producing region, with immense orchards expanding over rolling hills. Here, the softer and fruitier expression of the Galega variety shines (with some Carrasquenha, Cobrançosa and Cordovil thrown in).
The Northeast’s Trás-os-Montes (also known as Terra Quente or “hot earth”) and Alto Douro make up Portugal’s second largest olive oil producing region with a higher concentration of centenary groves where the Verdeal Transmontana, Madural, Cobrançosa, and Cordovil varieties thrive and produce more pungent, herbal and sometimes almondy olive oil.
Olive Groves in Tras-os-Montes
Quinta do Tedo's Olive Oil
Farah’s partner, Quinta do Tedo, dry-farms 800 50-100-year-old olive trees in the heart of Douro Valley. Owner Kay Bouchard oversees the October/November harvest by which men hit the olive trees with long sticks until all the ripe fruit falls into nets arranged around the tree’s base, propped up at the ends to ensure no olives are lost down the steep slopes into the Tedo River.
“Our extra virgin olive oil is a blend of the traditional verdeal, cordovil, carrasquenha and moleirinha varieties, which we believe enhances the viability of our orchards and adds inherent complexity to the final product”, says Kay.
Odile Bouchard, Tedo’s Marketeer and Brand Ambassador with a background in biology, chimes in - “our olive trees also add biodiversity to our 36-acre estate and Tedo River eco reserve; wild asparagus grow under them in Spring and blue tits, field owls and the common swift nest or feed in their branches throughout the year.”
Quinta do Tedo looks for a perfect balance between acid and ripeness in their fruit, which they cold-press into the final product that is intense and fruity, yet with mellow spice, a perfect bitterness and long finish that asks for another taste and pairs with Portuguese cuisine, much like their Ports and Douro DOC wines. Taste it for yourself!