HISTORY OF OLIVE FARMING IN THE TARRAGONA PROVINCE

RECERCA

A CHANGE OF VARIETY
The olive tree has also fallen victim to times of war. The historian, Antoni de Bofarull (1821-1892) comments in the Annals de Reus, that 700,000 olive trees in the area were felled during the French occupation. Some say, however that some things happen for a purpose. The felling the old olive trees for timber or for military tactics, meant that they had to replant the land and this is when they planted a type of olive tree which up until then was in the minority: the Arbequine variety. Antoni Ponz, one of a number of illustrious travellers of the time, was a witness to this process in 1785:

“The spirit factories have been the end of many an olive tree, whose owners have sold them to burn therein. Despite having replanted, it seems they have had no other regard for what it is they are planting which has resulted in an early fruit, giving olives which are known here as Arbequine and which in twenty years time no longer carry fruit. However, they have preferred them to the old local ones purely because they take longer to produce without thinking of the longevity.”

Another diagnosis of the olive oil sector is given to us by Jaume Ardèvol (1773-1835) in a study dating from 1820 about the city of Reus. He confirms this tendency to replace old olive trees with a new variety known as “bequina”.

“The second harvest of that village, is the olive oil harvest. The great olive trees of this area, due to not being very productive have been replaced by a species called Bequina, which of all the types brought to this country, seems to be the most prolific and the most adequate for this land. As I have observed the same species modifies itself according to terrains and diverse climates, for this reason I can’t discard the fact that it could be an improved variety of Olea Viridula coming from the successful Gouan. The Bequine produces oil in abundance and is of superior quality. It gives fruit every year: yet one year it does and the next it only gives half the previous year’s harvest, and every five years it has an increased harvest.”

Despite the fact that olive oil production came a poor second best to wine, the quantities produced in Reus or the surrounding areas from the Tarragona area and the Priorat region were considerable. In 1860, Reus had thirty-two warehouse companies or oil purveyors who exported 150,000 QUARTANS (1 quartà= 8 litres aprox.) from the port of Tarragona and 180,000 from that of Salou.

TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY

During a great part of the first half of the nineteenth century, olive oil prices remained stable and profitable. This meant that the sector flourished. However, by the 1860s, a series of factors led to a fall in prices. By 1870 they had fallen to 20% the price of previous years. The main causes were to be found in the incipient competition of the new imported seed oils, the substitution of oil as a source of energy for lighting in favour of gas, acetylene and paraffin and the scarce demand for Catalan oils abroad motivated by their lower level of quality in relation to olive oils from Italy and France.

The only sure way of combating the crisis meant improving quality and reducing costs. At the same time, it was difficult to increase plantations of such an unstable crop, as the belief of the fluctuating crop still ruled (one good year and the next only half the harvest). It was also plagued by pests and adverse weather conditions. In fact, if we believe Jaume Fort i Prats’ (1873-1955) word, in the Annals de Reus, between 1861 and 1907, he states that these years suffered very inadequate and poor harvests.

Around 1880, newspapers tell of a good harvest and an increase in demand. This led to the setting up of new businesses. The following year, exports reached Italy and in 1887, they included America and Norway. In 1890, Reus had more than twenty hydraulic oil presses and in 1918 there were around fifty. The lower quality oil was used to make soap, another important industry in this city.

THE TARRAGONA AREA, AN ADVANCED CENTRE FOR OIL-RELATED RESEARCH

By the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, farming in the Tarragona area was one of the most advanced in the whole of Catalonia and Reus constituted one of the most important olive oil markets of the time. This was why it was one of the better prepared areas of Catalonia to deal with a crisis in the sector and to face its new demands. For years they had been unifying varieties with a clear aim of further developing the Arbequine variety. They increased their efforts. They started to use modern fertilisers and they improved pruning methods as well as applying effective treatments against pests.

The improvements were also noticeable in the process of obtaining olive oil. More and more, private producers and cooperatives took over the production process, leading to the use of more modern machinery. The change in technology, with the more general use of conical mill stones, the substitution of animals for combustion engines or electrical energy, the pressing systems and the improvement in the materials used for making vats and tanks for transport, had a decisive influence on the quality of the product. Work done by the Mancomunitat de Catalunya (1914-1925) at the same time to improve the industry also warrants a mention. The Tarragona area was the experimenting ground of all these advances and this had a very positive effect on the quantity and quality of the product. It also promised new horizons for the sector.

10 Reasons for eating Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  • It is the only oil which is obtained by purely mechanical methods.
  • It is in effect natural olive juice.
  • It is the most vitamin-rich of all the oils (vitamins E,A and D) and the only one with poly-phenols, highly effective natural anti-oxidants.
  • It is the healthiest of all the oils and also the easiest to digest.
  • It is a nutritious product. Despite its calories, some recent studies have started to suggest that it does not lead to weight gain.
  • It is beneficial to bone growth, brain development and the nervous system as it contains oleic acid.
  • It is perfect for circulatory and cardiovascular diseases and it also reduces cholesterol.
  • It is good for the skin thanks to its high content of vitamin E.
  • It is better for frying as it can reach temperatures of more than 180ºC
  • It is also cheaper as it can be used more than once.
  • It gives the best taste to sauces, salads, stews and is the only one which does not leave a greasy aftertaste after eating.


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