The Malta Independent 15 July 2024, Monday
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2,000-year-old Trees still producing olives

Malta Independent Tuesday, 16 August 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

A field of magnificent trees with huge trunks and intricate designs; a work of art in themselves, are found in the rural village of Bidnija. These have been growing for centuries and are known as ‘Bidni’, possibly named after the village.

Natasha Farrugia, a senior agricultural officer in charge of olive tree and olive oil production at the Agriculture Directorate guided me and the photographer to a field in Bidnija, tucked away from the streets.

“Carbon dating has proved these trees are some 2,000 years old,” she pointed out.

Evidently they are still in production today and their fruit is known to be quite resistant to disease, especially to the attack of the olive fruit fly. Unlike the fruit from other varieties, Bidni trees allow the fruit to ripen on the tree even when subject to an attack.

This variety is a vigorous grower of strong scaffold structure. The leaves are typically broad and short and the fruit is very small with a comparatively small stone. The fruit is rich in oil, rich in flavour and free from bitterness, therefore it can be considered as a dual purpose variety. Fruit ripens around October or early November and turns to a dark violet color at maturity.

Other old olive cultivars include ‘Il-Malti’ meaning the Maltese Olive, ‘Il-Ħelwa ta’ Sqallija’ - the sweet Sicilian olive, ‘L-Imrajja ta’ Marsala’ - the Marsala olive, and ‘Il-Bajda’ - the white olive.

The so called Maltese olive is a fair sized tree with a strong scaffold. The leaves are broad and the fruit is elliptical in shape having a small to medium size with a relatively large stone. It matures around November or December.

It is almost certain that the olive tree was brought to Malta by the Phoenician traders who travelled widely around the Mediterranean Sea and its cultivation was extended by the Romans.

Traces of the olive story in Malta appeared in Malta’s free standing temples. A distinct layer of charcoal was discovered during excavations at ‘Skorba’ temples, which date back to 4,500 – 4,100 BC, revealing the carbonized remains of several tree species, one of which was Olea europaea (olive).

Tests carried out at the Royal Botanical Kew Gardens by Dr. C. R. Metcalf reveal that although “it is quite impossible to distinguish wild from cultivated material of this kind from microscopical characters, the samples came from the destruction level of the temple, and must represent the timberwork of its roof. The implication is that they were from well-grown olive trees, not from wild scrub olive.”

This evidence implies early olive cultivation; however whether the trees were grown for their fruit or for oil, given that extraction means were discovered at that time, would possibly forever remain shrouded by mystery.

The only certainty is that olive trees were present in Malta for millennia.

Archaeological excavations have led to the discovery of sites from the Roman period, bearing the first clear-cut evidence of olive oil production in Malta. One of the more extensively excavated Roman villas at San Pawl Milqi was in use until the end of the Byzantine Period. Several trapetum - huge stone mills in which olives were crushed to an oily paste, discovered and still found at this villa, revealed that it was used as a country house and centre for olive oil production.

A similar site not so well known, is found in Żejtun, a village which takes its name from the Sicilian Arabic for ‘olive’- zaytun.

When the Arabs occupied Malta from 870 to 1090 AD they introduced the cultivation of citrus and cotton, which was a successful cash crop, to the detriment of the slow maturing olive tree. The money made from cotton exports was used to import vital grain and other food supplies.

Cotton was more practical: It was planted and harvested, either leaving nothing behind in the empty fields or allowing for the cultivation of another crop, unlike olive trees which were permanent and needed care and protection.

Many olive trees were also cut down for ship-building without being replaced. Despite all this, several villages and towns named during the Arab period indicate that Malta was synonymous with the growth and production of olive trees. These include ‘Birżebbuġa’ meaning the well of olives, ‘Haż-Żebbuġ’ - an olive village, ‘Għajn Żejtuna’ - the spring of olive oil, ‘Bir id-deheb’ - the well of gold (as olive oil was referred to as liquid gold), and ‘Iż-Żejtun’ - the cultivated olive for oil production.

By the sixteenth century olive trees were again plentiful, so much so that olive groves produced oil which was a useful article of commerce and was carried to Spain and there exchanged for silver. In the last half of the sixteenth century there was a large demand of cotton from Spain with the result that around 80,000 olive trees were chopped down.

The cultivation of olive trees in Malta is distributed all over the three main islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino. Many of the trees contributing to the local olive growing area are scattered, used as wind breakers, or mixed with other fruit trees.

The typical size of Maltese agricultural land parcels, which are small and fragmented, often separated by typical stone ‘rubble’ walls is the main reason for the irregular distribution. The recent re-establishment of the olive industry led to planting olive trees in groves, starting from as little as 0.1 of a hectare with a mean planting density of 300 to 400 trees per hectare.

The area covered by olive trees last year amounted to138 hectares.

With the re-establishment of the olive industry in the late 1990s, international cultivars were introduced, mainly originating from Spain and Italy. The most common include Frantoio, Leccino, Carolea, Pendolino and Cipressino for oil varieties, as well as Uova di Piccione and Bella di Spagna for table varieties.

In order to study their adaptability to the local Environment, the Agricultural Directorate established an organic experimental grove in 2003 with 20 of the most commonly planted cultivars. In this grove, Maltese cultivars have also been planted as a genetic resource to study their characteristics

In order to conserve and revive the Maltese cultivars, the PRIMO project (Project for the Revival of the Indigenous Maltese Olive) was launched in November 2006. This is an environmental initiative with the aim of reviving indigenous cultivars in order to arrive at a reasonable quantity to produce local olive oil deriving from these cultivars and eventually obtain certification and a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).

Up till this year, over 3,000 trees were planted in 32 distinct areas around the islands, with a planting density of 200 trees per hectare.

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