Saturday, 10 December 2011

Spain 2011, The Dehesa of Extremadura and the Olive Groves of Castilla-La Mancha

The journey began well enough and we left Trujillo and started to drive south towards the N430, the main road from Mérida to Ciudad Real but after a few kilometres the satnav found us a shortcut. There was nothing wrong with this at first but at the town of Campo Lugar, which seemed to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere the tarmac road abruptly stopped and became a pot holed pitted shale track that went on for about ten kilometres. I was for turning back but Kim persuaded me to carry on and I conceded and drove with care as the road continued to deteriorate the further we went. I had resolved not to fall out with the satnav lady this week but this part of the journey severely tested my promise to keep calm. Eventually we came to a junction and a proper road and soon we were motoring towards our destination.

Through the east of Extremadura we passed through the oak tree plantations of the dehesa where the land is carefully cultivated and managed. ‘Dehesa’ is the name given to the seemingly endless areas of farmland consisting of groves of low density, mature oak trees because of the poor quality of the soil. Around half of the land of Extremadura is taken up by these dehesas and the spaces between the trees are used to cultivate cereals and as pasture for grazing livestock. The tree species is predominantly evergreen Holm, with Cork Oak grown on richer, more humid soils and at the base of the mountains. Several grades of tree coverage occur with the most open and more easily cultivated holding up to fifteen oaks per hectare, intermediate covering has up to thirty oak trees per hectare and the densest plantings thirty to fifty trees per hectare.

This part of the journey was reminder of just how big Spain is as we motored for mile after mile without meeting any other traffic or without passing through towns or villages. The road just kept grinding endlessly on in an easterly direction in a way that reminded me of the tortuous journey through Andalusia in a clapped out Ford Escort in 1986. The road had no lay-bys, picnic areas or service stations and I was glad that I had topped up the tank earlier in the day as we had left Mérida.

Eventually we passed out of Extremadura and into Castilla-La Mancha and the landscape abruptly changed and what had been a long straight road before now began to twist and turn as we climbed and dropped through undulating hills, river valleys, past huge reservoirs and through vast olive groves. The oak trees had gone now and there were olive trees as far as the eye could see.

This shouldn’t have been surprising because Spain is the world’s leading producer of olives and is by a long way the country with the highest number of olive trees (more than three hundred million), is nowadays the world’s leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter and the world’s leading producer of table olives, which explains why cafés and bars are always so generous with a plate of olives to accompany every drink. Of the two million hectares of olive groves in Spain, 92% are dedicated to olive oil production. The average annual production varies due to the cyclical nature of the harvest, but typically runs between 600,000 and 1,000,000 metric tons, less than a quarter of which is exported.

Olives are gathered from late November to the end of March, depending on the area and the year’s weather. Harvesting is a painstaking task and is done by hand, or with a stick to shake the fruit onto tarpaulins arranged around the tree (it is sometimes done with a mechanical tree shaker, though this can damage a tree). Looking at all of those trees that process must provide plenty of work at harvest time!

By late afternoon the journey was becoming tedious and tiring as we counted down the kilometres to Ciudad Real and Almagro just beyond as we passed through fields of grain decorated with drifts of scarlet poppies and more and more villages as we approached the city. We didn’t stop in Ciudad Real, which was a bit rude, because we were keen to get to our destination and once past the minor traffic hold up in the city we relaxed and enjoyed the last few motoring minutes as we approached our destination.

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