RTW Environment Field Note
Olives, Cortijos and Bandits on the Cliff
Abstract: Aside from the 80 million olive trees that wave silver in Spanish winds, Spanish can seem rather mild. The lack of tall mountains and yawning lakes is made up for, however, by Ronda: a fantasy stronghold staggering off a Lord of the Rings cliff.
As I scoured the massive bins of olives, the shopkeeper peered over my shoulder. “Just remember,” he said, flashing a smile, “here in the heart of Spain, we don’t have large oceans or towering mountains, but we have mountain ranges and seas of olives.” Bins and barrels piled high with black, green, and purple olives glistened with oil. Some held olives mingling with peppercorn and onion, others boasted olives stuffed with anchovies, some had olives with pickles poked into their hollowed pits. The shopkeeper pointed to a barrel of green olives soaking in oil with lemon rind and bay leaves. “These are the best olives,” he said, gesturing toward the sign that read abuela or “grandmother.” He insisted, “It’s a secret recipe. A real grandmother. She’s 90 years old.” I nodded. Finally, to truly convince me, he urged, “Listen, she lives in a cortijo.” This word is pronounced CORE (like apple core) T (like the letter) HO (like Santa Claus’ laugh).
Once in a while you come upon a word in a certain language that just doesn’t translate into any other language. Cortijo is a perfect example. There is no single word translation for the word cortijo because cortijo uniquely reflects the Spanish environment and geography. So, what is a cortijo? Consider that the real grandmother that the shopkeeper mentions lives in one, and take a guess. What do you think it means? Now read on and find out.
Spain’s countryside consists of rolling hills, sunshine, eighty million olive trees and an astonishing number of sunflowers and fragrant orange groves. Nowadays, most of the orchards and olive fields belong to corporations. However, individuals still must tend them, through a cortijo. Cortijos are small, usually stone houses where workers or artisan fruit or olive experts tend to produce. They look like romantic rural houses dotting the lush hills of Southern Spain. Living in a cortijo might seem enchanting, but it’s probably a lot of work. Imagine a giant field of silvery olive trees: a very small orchard might have 1,000 trees. Each tree can easily yield ten thousand olives. These numbers are quite high, so let’s slow down. What is 1,000 multiplied by 10,000. Count the zeros. How many are there? Seven! 10 million olives seems like a huge number, right? But when you consider that there are 80,000,000 olive trees in Spain, it actually becomes quite small. The grandmother that the shopkeeper referred to must be a very busy woman!
The most impressive feature of Spain might be the vast rolling hills where olive oil seems to flow forth in great rivers. Spain has great land for olives, since olive trees love dry soil and limestone. Limestone is an amazing stone: bright white and crumbly, it’s formed from shells and bones, and when you see the white of limestone aglow in the sunshine, you can safely assume that wherever you are was once underwater! In Spain, the limestone hills stretch for miles and miles, and the wind blows the shiny grey-green leaves of the olive trees so the whole landscape looks like a glowing silver and cream apocalypse. November sees a flurry of activity, as most olives have to be harvested in this month to make olive oil. Do you think olives can be eaten straight from the tree like cherries? What would an olive taste like if you picked it and took a bite? It would be so bitter you would probably spit it out! Olives have to go through a process called “curing.” This doesn’t mean that the olive is sick and needs to get better; it means that the olives need to be jarred and soaked in a special salt solution for several months before they taste good.
Having great olive soil and infrastructure (the cortijos) provide Spain with a special niche in the economy. Spain is the number one exporter in the entire world of which product? That’s right: olives! If you go to a drink shop and order a drink, Spain’s tradition is to give you a bowl of olives for free. What a deal! Spaniards remain proud of their olives, and will continue growing, harvesting, spicing and eating them as long as their limestone-rich soil remains sandy and their sun remains strong.
Aside from the rolling hills of olives, Spanish geography, compared to many places, looks mild. Their mountains don’t rise too high and their lakes don’t sprawl too wide. The most striking town, however, looks like it towered straight out of Lord of the Rings. The town of Ronda used to house bandits and refugees of the law. They had a famous tribe of bandits called the Black Hands, and the townspeople loved the bandits so much, they would hide them in their attics whenever the sheriff came to town looking for them.
Why did these bandits lurk in Ronda? They came here to lay low and sit high: this town perches on top of two cliffs, connected by a 200-meter (600 foot) bridge. As you cross this bridge, you look over the tops of soaring birds and a valley dipping so low it makes you dizzy. Ronda provides great benefits to its inhabitants but also presents great challenges. Imagine living on a cliff. You are well protected, remote, hidden away, and you have a killer view. But what about when you need to haul up a bag of groceries? You might get tired walking up that cliff side. A serious challenge for people living in Ronda lies in the ability to stock stores and restaurants with fresh produce. How do they do it? They painstakingly built narrow roads of cobblestone up the steep cliff and trucks chug their way up with loads of milk and fruit and cheese. People have had to adapt to the environment, waiting for their goods to arrive and finding patience while looking down at the birds from the lofty cliff tops.
Because Spain’s geography enjoys rolling hills and not too dramatic peaks, it’s a great place to hike and walk. If you get a chance, and especially if you have a hankering for olives, put Spain on your list of destinations!