The cultivation of olives in Mallorca

The cultivation of olives and the consumption of olive oil have a long tradition in Mallorca. Olive oil is fundamental in Mallorcan cooking, and in the past it was also used for lighting in houses. The olive tree is typically Mediterranean and is well suited to the unique climate of Mallorca, especially in the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, where olive trees, some of which are over a thousand years old, form a part of the landscape.

It was in the sixteenth century that great advances were made in olive cultivation and the production of olive oil, especially in the villages of the Sierra de Tramuntana mountain range, with Sóller being the main production centre. Olives were the main source of wealth for the estates in these villages for a long period of time, and nearly all the estates had their own oil mill. Oil produced in excess of local demand was exported to economic centres such as London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Marseilles, and we thus see the dominant social classes involved in controlling production and commerce. Rather than being for human consumption, the exported oil was used as a raw material in industrial processes. In England and Holland, low-grade oils were needed in textile mills, and Marseilles, with its powerful chemical industry, imported oil from Mallorca for use in the fabrication of soap.

Between the second half of the seventeenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth, oil represented between 65% and 85% of all exports from Mallorca. But from 1850 onwards, oil became secondary in the export rankings, as exports such as wine and almonds became stronger; and on top of this, at the end of the nineteenth century the international market lost interest in Mallorcan oil, which was largely of a low quality and shunned in favour of oil from Italy by both American and European consumers. However, despite the continued decline of oil exports right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, it continued to be the main source of income for the estates with their own oil mill on the Sierra de Tramuntana.

Nowadays the geography of the area and the subsequent difficulty in gaining access with machinery, as well as insect plagues and the general state of abandonment of the olive groves, mean that cultivating olives is difficult, and the production of oil has greatly declined. Oli verge de la Serra de Tramuntana (virgin olive oil of the Sierra de Tramuntana) is obtained from Mallorcan olives that are grown at an altitude of between 300m and 600m. This oil has a QC (quality control) denomination from the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry of the Regional Government of the Balearic Islands.

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