Spanish Olives:
12 of the Best Varieties

🕔 7 mins (total)
An assorted variety of olivas para picar.
An assorted variety of olivas para picar.

As often as not when you order a beer or a glass of wine in this country you’ll be presented with a small something to nibble on – algo para picar – and this little offering will frequently be a small bowl of olives.

Olives are also typically served alongside – or inside – your Sunday afternoon vermut, and they are an intrinsic ingredient in the Mediterranean diet that helps makes Spain one of the healthiest countries in the world to live in. You will typically find them in salads or on pizzas, or just on their own as a snack before meals, and they also feature in many Mediterranean recipes.


Along with some other culinary delights around here – mushrooms, pumpkins, and wild boar to name but a few – olives are in season during the autumn and are harvested from September/October through November/December. Most go to making olive oil, which is unsurprising seeing as Spain is by far the world’s leading producer of the stuff. The Greeks produce more per capita but, in overall terms, Spain produces a lot more olive oil than any of its nearest rivals.

Olive oil

We won’t go into any detail about olive oil in this article as we have already written a piece about a local producer right here in the Baix Empordà. Although most Spanish olive oil comes from southern Spain, especially Andalucia which produces about half of the national output, some of the finest brands of EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) are to be found right here in Catalunya.

Table olives

As we mentioned, it is very common in Spanish bars to receive a free small bowl of olivas, like a small tapa, when you order a drink. In other bars, olives might be available to purchase. Is this because some bars are just more generous than others? Well, possibly… but it’s more likely to do with the type of olive, as some are more expensive than others – and there are well over 2000 different types worldwide!

But before we get into that, are they olivas or aceitunas?

Olivas or aceitunas; which is it?

The answer is either, or both. You may possibly come across an explanation stating that “aceitunas” are olives used for making olive oil, and “olivas” are those that are meant for eating. This is erroneous and in fact, there is no difference between the two, except that one name is of Arabic origin while the other comes from Latin.

The word aceituna comes from the Hispanic Arabic word az-zaytúna, which derives from the classical Arabic zaytūnah, which came in turn from the ancient Aramaic, zaytūnā. Olive oil was called az-zait.

Oliva comes directly and unchanged into Spanish from Latin and got its name from olivum, the word for the olive tree, which also gave rise to the word oleum for oil.

If there is any difference in the two terms it might be in that “aceituna” might be more commonly heard in Andalucía, Extremadura, Castilla la Mancha, Castilla y León, Madrid, Galicia, Navarra, La Rioja, Asturias, Cantabria, País Vasco & Islas Canarias – which makes some sense as Arabic influence was generally more dominant and lasted longer in these parts –  while “oliva” is probably more used in Catalunya, Aragón, Valencia, Murcia, and the Balearic Islands. But that is only very generally speaking, and you will hear both terms used all over Spain.

Where did olives originate?

Olive trees, whose botanical name is Olea europaea, meaning “European olive”, are native to almost the entire Mediterranean region, where they have been cultivated for well over 6000 years. They feature prominently in ancient Jewish, Greek, Roman and Islamic texts and were often regarded as sacred, their branches symbolizing peace, glory, wisdom, fertility, power, abundance, or purity in various cultures. It is believed that olives were first cultivated in ancient Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey) and Syria, but it was the Phoenicians who introduced them to Spain around 1100 B.C.E. – around the same time that they also introduced vines and viticulture. Great people, those Phoenicians!

Olives continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean and later to the rest of the world and are nowadays cultivated in Pacific regions of both South and North America, South Africa, and, to a lesser degree, in China and Japan.

Olive trees can live a very long time, and there are some living examples in Greece that have been dated as being over 2000 years old. The oldest specimen in Spain hasn’t moved from the same spot just outside the town of Ulldecona for just over 1700 years and even has its own name: la Farga de Arión. Ulldecona is in the very south of Catalunya near the border with Valencia, so stop in and pay it a visit if you’re ever passing by. It’d probably appreciate seeing a few new faces!

Green or black?

First of all, all olives start off green and then gradually turn to brown, red, purple or blue and then finally black as they fully ripen. The I.O.C. (that’s the International Olive Council, not the “International Olympic Committee” or the “Institut Obert de Catalunya”!) officially classifies table olives into three groups:

  • Green olives are those that have grown to full size but have not begun to ripen.

  • Semi-ripe olives are olives whose skin has begun to turn to a reddish-brown colour but the flesh inside is still green.

  • Black or ripe olives have turned purple/blue or completely black in colour.

At this point, it is worth mentioning the variety of black olives in brine that are sold, already pitted, in jars or tins. These are olives of either of the first two varieties, green or semi-ripe, that have been soaked in a lye solution (sodium or potassium hydroxide mixed with water) to reduce their natural bitterness, and then pumped with oxygen and treated with ferrous gluconate (the iron salt of gluconic acid). This process is repeated until they turn artificially black.

They are sometimes known as California olives, even though the process of preparing these olives began in Spain and is still very common here. Black olives that are sold already pitted have almost certainly been cured with lye as true ripe black olives are too soft to be pitted by machine. Olives processed in this way lose much of their flavour and are nothing like the real deal. You’ll probably see them being sold as “aceitunas negras confitadas” or “olives negres confitades“. Let’s just say they’re fine for pizzas!

Curing olives

All olives need to be cured before they are ready for human consumption – and no, not cured because they are ill, but rather because of their very bitter flavour when picked from the tree. Apart from treatment with the lye solution mentioned above, there are two basic substances used for curing: salt and water.

The most common method of curing olives is to soak them in brine (salted water) where they slowly ferment over a number of months, even up to a year. Brine-cured olives usually have an intense and slightly sweet flavour.

Olives can also be dry-cured by packing them in salt, which extracts the moisture and bitterness from the fruit. Afterwards, the olives are often bathed in olive oil to restore their moisture and texture. These olives have a concentrated flavour and their skin can have a slightly wrinkled appearance.

Water curing is quite rare as it is very slow. It involves simply repeatedly rinsing the olives in water to reduce the bitterness. Sometimes methods are combined and olives are water-cured first and then soaked in brine.

Varieties of olives

And so, finally, we come to the varieties. As we mentioned, there are over 2000 different species to be found all over the world, and here in Spain, regardless of whether they are called olivas or aceitunas, there are over two hundred cataloged olive varieties. Rather than attempt to cover them all, which would be virtually impossible in any case, we will just look at some of the more common species cultivated in this country – and even at that, it is by no means an exhaustive list. It is also worth remembering that sometimes olives of the same variety may have different names in different places.

As to which ones are the “best”, it all depends on whether they’re being grown for eating or for olive oil production, and if for eating, then the “best” will always depend on regional tastes and who you ask.

So here, in alphabetical order (to avoid disputes!), are just a dozen of the most common varieties in Spain:

  • Aragón:
    Also known as the “empeltre”. Slightly elongated in shape. Very flavourful and sweet. These olivas are picked very ripe and are amongst the best black olives. As their name suggests, they are mainly grown in Aragón and part of Catalunya. They’re not too common elsewhere.

  • Arbequina:
    Native to the Catalan town of Arbeca (formerly Arbequa), this small olive is cultivated in Catalunya and Aragón. This olive variety has a firm “meaty” texture but is appreciated for its concentrated, fruity, floral flavor. Mostly used in olive oil production, they are also a perfect accompaniment to sausages and other salty tapas.

  • Blanqueta:
    Slightly spicy and mildly bitter, this olive is also aromatic and fruity. They are primarily cultivated in southern Valencia, especially Alicante.

  • Campo Real:
    Very common in and around Madrid, where they are grown. Their thin skins mean that, although bitter, the flavor is pretty mild; often seasoned in a brine of fennel, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, and cumin.

  • Cornicabra:
    Also very slightly spicy and bitter, this olive tastes of fresh, mature fruit. Cultivated in Castilla-la-Mancha.

  • Gordal:
    One of the biggest olive varieties in Spain, this Andalucian variety is named for its size; gordo in Spanish means “fat”. Perfect for stuffing and therefore very popular with tapas, especially around Sevilla where they are grown, and accompanied by a glass of sherry from nearby Jerez.

  • Hojiblanca:
    Also from western Andalucía, these thicker-skinned olives are spicy and also have a peppery, nutty flavour, while at the same time being sweet and aromatic.

  • Lechín:
    From the same region (we did say Andalucía produces over half of the country’s olives!), this olive gets its name from its whitish colour (leche = milk). Very mildly bitter with hints of nuts or almond flavour.

  • Malagueña:
    Usually brine-cured, these olives are smashed open to allow the brine to penetrate deeper into the “meat”, making the flavour stronger and extra aromatic. The name comes from its region of origin.

  • Manzanilla:
    This very common, oval-shaped olive is brine-cured and has a slightly smoky, almond flavour. Often stuffed with peppers. The two most typical varieties are the manzanilla cacereña from Cáceres, and the manzanilla sevillana from… have a guess!

  • Obregón:
    Another one from Sevilla, characterised by its large size and pit. Typically has a strong and bitter taste.

  • Picual:
    Also known as marteña, this very adaptable variety accounts for about a fifth of all olives produced worldwide and fully half of those from Spain. Grown in Andalucía, it is characteristically bitter and fruity with a taste of green grass.

There’s certainly no shortage of choice anyway!

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