Olive Oil 101 (Part I)


In Spain, they take their olive oil seriously. Very, very seriously. That doesn't come as a total surprise: This is a country where they put oil on their toast at breakfast. But just how seriously was only recently revealed to me, when I learned that the University of Córdoba offers a postgraduate degree in the stuff. Cultivation, production, tasting, marketing, with special units on insect plagues and table olives. Four hours of class a day for nine months. Plus field trips. How could I not join in? And more importantly, would I get to add the title after my name?

Indeed, when I told him that I would be sitting in on a Master's program in Olive Oil, a friend of mine congratulated me on my educational ambitions. "What's next?" he asked. "A PhD in ice cream?"

Last Tuesday was the first day of class. Twenty-two of us squeezed into tiny desks in a room at the Seville oil storage facilities of, and I am not making this up, The Institute of Fat. Only four of the students were Spanish; the rest came from France, Tunisia, Albania, Algeria. One, Edwin Miranda, came all the way from Peru, where, it turns out, they make a lot of olive oil. "What they don't have is people with specialized knowledge," he says. "Which is why I came here."

Exactly. The course is nothing if not specialized. The syllabus follows the life cycle of the olive, and this being the start of harvest season we spent the morning talking, of course, about vibrators. Big, sturdy ones, with multiple arms and orbital rotations. Vibrators that can inflict damage if they're not properly deployed, or wear out if they're used too often.

You can get your mind out of the gutter now. It seems that nobody who hopes to make a living producing olive oil picks the fruit by hand anymore. The machines range from small strap-on models (again: out of the gutter) that shake individual branches to huge, tractor-like things that take a tree by the trunk and give it the business. With a lavish PowerPoint slide show as a guide, Professor Gil walked us through the many types of vibrators, explaining how the age of and style in which a tree is pruned determines the best machine for the job. Also, the varietal: it turns out, as Professor Gil says, that every type of tree shakes differently.

Most of my fellow students seemed pleased by class. Vocabulary was an occasional issue—phrases like "multidimensional rotation" and "transference rates" provoked a frantic passing of Spanish-Arabic dictionaries among the small clutch of Algerian students—but otherwise they listened attentively. The only disappointment came during the break: it turns out there is no café at or anywhere near the Institute of Fat. Instead, we sat down on the curb in the hot Seville sun, and let the scent of olive oil waft over us. I can't wait until we get to pressing.

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