In Spain, olive oil is a food; from my observations I would say it’s a sacred food, at least in the south of the country. Traditionally, if you have bread and oil, you’re OK. During the ‘hunger years’ after the Civil War, the rationing of bread to one small roll a day and oil to a quarter of a litre per person per week was hard to endure. Olive oil is what you put on your bread and what you cook with. In those starvation years when many families existed on one meagre meal a day and tasted meat only once a year at Easter, women in the villages were often reduced to scouring the countryside for dubious delicacies such as thistles, dandelions and nettles; fennel if they were lucky. As if that weren’t bad enough, having to fry them without oil meant they would inevitably burn.
Alongside the dire shortage of oil during those first years of the posguerra was the lack of decent bread. The impossibility of working in the fields during the war, followed by several years of acute drought, meant that little food of any kind could be grown. Unless you could afford to buy on the black market, you had to make do with your meagre ration of ‘black’ bread made from maize and often adulterated with other substances. White bread made with wheat was a luxury reserved for the rich and privileged. In 1949 when Gerald Brenan visited Spain, bread on the black market cost 12 pesetas a kilo, roughly the average daily wage – though bear in mind that few people had work every day and many none at all. Those living in former red zones were denied disability pensions and access to healthcare unless they could pay. Any savings were useless, as the currency in those zones had been annulled.
Granada, like other towns, once had public ovens in the street. Memory of them remains in some street names, such as Horno de Oro (gold oven). Another reminder of the importance of bread is found in the rather sad name of the street called Poco Trigo (little wheat). On the outskirts of the city, not far from where I live, is the Cortijo Hornillo. The ‘little oven’ can still be seen outside.
A few kilometres from Granada is the village of Alfacar, famous since Moorish times for the quality of its bread. Its population of 4,500 is served by about fifty bakeries, some with their old Arab ovens fuelled by leña (firewood) still in use. The secret of their bread, which is widely distributed and highly valued, lies partly in the flavour given by the firewood, partly in the purity and sweetness of the water, brought to the village via irrigation channels from the snows of the Sierra Nevada.
Many of Spain’s traditional recipes are based on bread and oil, including gazpacho and salmorejo, the cold soups made chiefly from bread, oil and tomatoes. Another popular traditional dish is migas, cubes or crumbs of stale bread fried with garlic and sometimes other additions in either olive oil or lard. Similar but usually sweet, are gachas, little balls of bread and/or flour fried in (guess what?) olive oil and eaten with honey. Even the special Easter treat of torrijas consists basically of bread fried in oil. Salads are dressed with liberal quantities of olive oil tempered by only a tiny drop of lemon juice or vinegar. Cheese is often served in oil (with bread to mop it up). Butter is used in the north but almost never in Andalucía. The standard breakfast (for me too) is toast with oil and tomatoes. Maybe this is what gives Spanish women the second highest life expectancy in the world. (Jaén and Córdoba in the heart of olive country take top place along with Japan). Scientists say the nutritional benefits of tomatoes are much enhanced when eaten with olive oil. The high consumption of olive oil is what largely distinguishes the famous Mediterranean diet. Like wine, olive oil, now has its D.O. (denomination of origin) status and catas (tastings). People take their ‘liquid gold’ very seriously.
In Andalucía frying is the most popular method of cooking food. Hence the proliferation of recycling skips for used cooking oil in the streets of my city. These days few people use their old oil to make soap, as they once did, though I do have a friend in her eighties who still swears by it. As soon as she’s collected five litres of oil, she’ll make a batch and I can attest that it’s the best soap ever: pure white, sweet-smelling and it leaves the skin wonderfully soft as well as possessing antiseptic qualities. You would never ever guess its main ingredient is the stale oil left from frying fish, meat or potatoes.