Although introduced during Phoenician and Greek colonisation, the cultivation of olive trees in Los Montes de Toledo area significantly progressed in times of the Roman Empire. The three cultures that coexisted for centuries in these lands: Jews, Muslims and Christians were the ones who definitely expanded it.
It was especially during the latter years of the Roman Republic when this cultivation experienced a considerable upsurge and its presence was detected in the south of Sierra de Gredos (the Gredos mountain range). During the Muslim invasion there were few references which pointed to olive groves in Los Montes and in La Mancha region in general, which makes one presume that olive groves were scarce in this area and the plantations that may have existed at that time had a limited number of olive trees, these were widely dispersed and their production was mostly for local consumption.
The Mozarabic documents relating to Toledo and its land mention the olive grove cultivation, yet never occupying large expanses of land. An area of certain abundance is noted in the Talavera de la Reina municipality. Even though the references are few, the cultivation of olive trees in the kingdom of Toledo was very well known, as is reflected in the agricultural treaties of Ibn Wafic. However, these treaties do not enable us to clearly identify the amount of land that the crop occupied in the area. In the Spain of the Catholic Kings, the Andalusian cold soup with oil and vinegar (gazpacho) was a basic part of the diet in this area. Subsequently, Alonso de Herrera highlights the importance of the cultivation of trees and olive oil within his four-volume work entitled ‘Agricultura General’ (General Agriculture). This suggests that in the following century the olive tree would gain significant prominence.
During the 16th century there was an agricultural expansion which lead to an increase of the amount of cultivated land along with intensified ploughing. Olive trees were planted on the lands of the poorest quality following the trend of self-supply which was present. However, the political and institutional barriers together with the opposition from livestock farmers, who were part of the governing classes of the councils, prevented these trees from having the privilege to occupy wasteland. In the present-day province of Ciudad Real some provisions arose to plant olive groves around some villages, such as Piedrabuena. However, the presence of cultivated olive plantations was insignificant. In the province of Toledo, the olive-growing regions that enjoyed a certain tradition during that time were better defined: on the one hand the Torrijos, Santa Olalla and Val de Santo Domingo triangle, and on the other from Talavera to the west.
During the 17th century there was a slight increase in olive plantations, and many documents from this era have been conserved, such as dowries, sale contracts, cadastral maps and the like. The work ‘Las relaciones histórico-geográficas de Felipe II’ (The historical-geographical relations of Philip II) of 1575-1580 disclosed how olive trees were distributed along the Tagus river. These groves appeared in a number of municipalities which today comprise the designation of origin geographical area. The relevance of olive growing in this area changed completely during the 18th century, becoming a significant agricultural activity from its former secondary role. This change took place particularly due to the demographic and agricultural expansion that occurred in this century. In the Royal Decrees of 1748 and 1779 on reforestation there was a description of how the cultivation of olive groves was initiated in areas where there were none before, as in the case of the village of Mora and its surroundings. Although in that era the olive grove had not yet reached the importance that it would acquire in the following century, there were clear indications that marked an expansion of this cultivation. On the other hand, these showed poor uniformity in the distribution of municipalities or demarcation boundaries. During this period there were 20,000 fanegas of olive groves (about 16,718 hectares) grouped among the municipalities of Yepes, Dos Barrios, Noblejas and Villarubia de Santiago. In the triangle of Torrijos the olive grove importance did not descend and the figures were considerable particularly in regards to the harvest of 1782. The region of La Sagra counted on this harvest together with that of the vineyards.
In this century the olive grove area also increased slowly in some municipalities of Los Montes located north of Ciudad Real. Marginal lands were chosen for its plantation and the majority of its production was for self-supply.
The plantations were generally small, of less than one hundred trees. They occupied surface areas within the local demarcation boundaries. Curiously, we can cite some texts written by important writers of the time, which allude to the techniques used, making some of them relevant. This is the case of ‘Memoria sobre el modo de sacar aceite a costal’ written by Nicolás de Bargas and in which numerous references were made regarding the quality of the oil obtained. The translation of this publication would be: Memoir on How to Obtain Oil using the Costal Method. This involved producing oil with the aid of a ‘costal’ or ‘talega’, a sack where the olives were placed prior to crushing
In this era there are also many documented manuscripts regarding the ownership and sale of olives and oil.
In the 19th century, cultivation continued to progress thanks to the freedom of land ownership and to the successive increases in the oil price. Already at the end of the 18th century, France had become a market for oil export, while exports to the United Kingdom had increased. The second half of the 19th century was characterized by major changes to cultivation and to promoting production, trade and domestic consumption. The ‘Sociedades Económicas de Amigos del País’ (Economic Societies of Friends of the Country) disclosed the technical studies produced on these themes. Taking the ‘Madoz’ dictionary as source, the presence of olive groves is noted outside the main centres which we have cited up to now, making the cultivation more widespread throughout the area of Los Montes and increasing in the outer demarcation borders where it had already been introduced. Talavera, for example, obtained an average of 25,000 cántaras (400,000 litres) yearly.
Tomás Echevarría y Mayo, in his book ‘Datos para el estudio médico-topográfico de la Villa de Puebla de Montalbán’ (Medical-topographic Survey Data of the Village Puebla de Montalbán), cites a surface area in this municipal district of 1,096 hectares dedicated to olive groves, as well as a quantity of between 20,000 and 25,000 arrobas (230,000 kilos and 287,500 kilos) of oil “of superior quality” stored annually. Subsequently there is a period of slight stagnation observed during the years 1890 to 1912, although much less than in other areas of Castilla–La Mancha.
From 1907 a recovery of olive-growing areas is observed in regards to oil quality improvement, as well as an increase in the yield per hectare, neutralising the earlier downturn. It is at this time when the “take off” occurs in Los Montes de Toledo, in both quality and yield, although it doesn’t reach Andalusian yield figures due to more continental climatic conditions and poorer quality soils.
During that era there are two key areas in oil production: Mora and Los Yébenes. In the first, we found evidence from that time of exports made to Italy. These were of high quality oil, of single-olive variety which were used in Italy for mixing. A place in this region known as La Cañada del Castillo became completely committed to olive growth. Remarkably, in the whole area of Los Montes de Toledo there weren’t significant variations in the size of the olive-growing plots of land, and more specifically in the plantations that appeared in these last centuries. Contrary to what happened in other geographical areas, new olive-growing properties had not been previously employed for either grain or vineyards, but were established on reclaimed land. This led the small and medium-sized property-owners to good oil perspectives. Until 1950, the expansion continued. In the book ‘La Provincia de Toledo’ (The Province of Toledo) by Luis Moreno Nieto (published by Diputacion Provincial, Toledo 1960), olive growing and oil production are cited as being of great importance in the area. This book illustrates the existence of a large number of olive oil mills in the majority of the villages in the area while citing its relevance in exports together with the appraisals made in other countries of the quality of our oils.
During this time, the ‘Fiesta del Olivo’ (Olive Festival) started to take place in the town of Mora, in the province of Toledo. This festival is still held today, reflecting the huge importance of olive growing in the area, having reached great renown nationwide.
From the beginning of the second half of the 20th century there has been a new downturn in olive-growing mostly due to the low yield compared with other producing areas.
Nevertheless, our olive groves, ancient and traditional, have had technological improvements introduced which reduce costs and in recent decades industries have modernized the oil production techniques. This ensures the attainment of the highest level of quality, its stability and a production carried out in the best conditions of hygiene. The facilities have undergone complete renewal, incorporating the most modern techniques of extraction and storage of the product while taking exhaustive care of the smallest details in order to achieve the best oils.