I dreamed I was walking in a grove of ancient olive trees.
Like petrified giants, they stood rooted deep in the soil. Their gnarled trunks seemed made of stone, grey bark riddled with crevices. Only the silvery leaves sprouting from twisted branches fluttered in a sudden breeze.
If those trees could talk, what tales they would tell. Of Romans and Moors who swept across these hills centuries ago, leaving aqueducts and watch towers behind. And of a little boy who played happily among the rabbits and birds, plucking wild asparagus, hiding in a hollow of a tree older than he could count.
But wait. Is this a dream?
No, I’m awake—and I’ve seen that very grove.
It’s near the white town of Priego de Cordoba in Andalucia in southern Spain, off a narrow rutted road more suited to a battered pickup truck than the BMW sedan in which we are jouncing along. In the 18th century Priego was a town made rich by silk production, but today the groves extend as far as the eye can see and olive oil is king.
We’re with Fermin Rodriguez, a burly, soft-spoken man with a radiant smile. His family has tended this grove for three generations, and his brothers still live in the old family home nearby. In town he and his Moroccan wife Aixa have a tasting room, where visitors can sample the award-winning extra virgin olive oil which they bottle and sell under the name Senorio de Vizcantar.
And though he is a polished spokesman for Vizcantar, skillfully guiding novices through the finer points of blending and tasting, once Fermin steps into the grove, the years fall away. “I used to play here,” he recalls happily, as we walk through a field of golden wildflowers.
All around us are magnificent olive trees—Picudo and Hojiblanco, among others—planted old-style, far apart, still bearing fruit into their sunset years. Near a tiny stream Fermin stoops to pluck a few stalks of wild asparagus. He nibbles one end and smiles dreamily. “It’s so delicious. We’ll have it for supper tonight.”
At least one of these ancient trees, which he calls “the millenary olive,” is estimated to be 1,800 years old, and may been planted in the time of the Romans. It’s an Hojiblanco and from a distance, it is an ungainly creature with branches, some broken or split, jutting at awkward angles. Only as we get closer do I see how massive the trunk is and how it spreads over the ground. It’s pockmarked with holes and deep crevasses, and on one side, where the wood has rotted away, there is a child-size hollow. “This is where I would hide myself when I was little,” Fermin says, laughing at the memory. “I would stay here for hours.”
This handsome relic still produces olives which lend their peppery, almond-like flavor to Vizcantar oils.
But our idyllic amble in the grove with Fermin only exposes part of his charm. Back at his retail shop in town, we sit at tables that make it double as a lecture hall. Here tour buses stop frequently so that travelers may complete their education. He teaches pilgrims the difference between good and bad oil, the importance of cooperative enterprise for small producers, and the ritual the novice should practice in tasting olive oils.
As in many industries, olive oil production is dominated by a handful of very large landowners. But then there are a resolute few, like Fermin, who are clever and agile enough to continue the art of their ancestors, making the most of their small holdings. After a chat, we leave for Cordoba, feeling fortunate to have spent a few hours in his company—and to have seen his magnificent grove.