This Under-the-Radar Town Is Known as the ‘Olive Oil Capital of the World’

Olive Oil CoW Animals

Written by Joyce Nash

Published: December 13, 2023

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For thousands of years, olive oil has played a prominent role in the culture and diets of Mediterranean countries. The famed Greek poet Homer referred to olive oil as “liquid gold,” and Greek athletes would rub olive oil into their skin in preparation to compete in the Olympic games.

This Under-the-Radar Town Is Known as the ‘Olive Oil Capital of the World’

Today, Spain is the world’s leading producer of olive oil and is home to the city that carries the title of “Olive Oil Capital of the World.”

About Jaén

Cityscape of Jaen in the evening

Jaén, a province in Andalusia, is the world’s leading producer of olive oil.

The Andalusian province of Jaén — and its capital city, which is also called Jaén — produces 50% of Spain’s olive oil and accounts for 20% of the olive oil produced throughout the world. Jaén produces around 600,000 tons of olive oil each year, making the region the olive oil capital of the world.

Aside from its prolific olive oil production, Jaén is a bustling city where modern-day amenities blend with historical structures. The city’s Mediaeval district features architecture that dates back to the 13th century, such as the Castillo de Santa Catalina, which offers beautiful views of the region’s olive tree groves.

The region’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing olive trees. Jaén receives an average of about 24 inches of rain each year, which mostly falls during the winter months. In the summer months, high temperatures average around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter temperatures reach an average low of about 44 degrees.

Olives on olive tree in autumn.

In Jaén, the olive harvest typically begins in November and runs through February.

Jaén’s Olive Oil

Across Spain, farmers grow around 260 different types of olives, but the Picual variety is dominant in Jaén. This aromatic olive is known for having a pleasantly bitter, spicy flavor. When pressed, Picual olives create a full-bodied oil that is ideal for cooking due to its ability to remain stable at higher temperatures. 

Farmers in Jaén have cultivated olive trees since the area was part of the Roman Empire. Today, there are over 60 million olive trees in Jaén, creating what some experts call the world’s largest man-made forest.

From Harvest To Liquid Gold

The olive harvest takes place from November through February. Because of Jaén’s hilly terrain, most of the harvest is completed manually. Historically, the olive harvest has drawn thousands of workers from across the region who first lay nets underneath the trees. Then, they shake the branches either by hand, with a long pole, or with a mechanical shaker to send the ripe olives raining to the ground below. 

From there, workers transport olives to olive oil mills, which are often cooperatively owned. Jaén province is home to hundreds of mills, where olives are sorted, washed, dried, and then cold-pressed. This process creates first-press olive oil, which must be produced within 24 hours of the olive harvest to ensure its quality. While a limited amount of oil is sold in this state, much of it is clarified for commercial sale. To remove the cloudiness, mills either let the olive oil rest or process it with a centrifuge.

Olives and olive oil

First-press olive oil must be produced within 24 hours of the olive harvest.

The Threat of Climate Change

Andalusian olive farmers have suffered greatly in recent years due to changing climate patterns that have devastated their crops. Since 2022, intense drought conditions have withered olive trees and significantly reduced the annual harvest. While olive trees are resistant to drought, winters in Jaén have been shorter and drier, leading some farmers to configure expensive irrigation systems to keep their crops alive.

In 2023, farmers estimated they would lose €1 billion in earnings for the season. For the second year in a row, olive oil mills across Spain are expecting to produce less than 1 million tons of oil. The unprecedented drought is not only impacting farmers. Laborers who have relied on steady, seasonal work are grappling with the lost wages totaling around €150 million. As a result, many communities around Jaén are losing residents as they move to other areas with available work.

The drought and resulting crop loss is also driving up olive oil prices for consumers. However, the higher prices are not necessarily benefitting farmers, who are navigating the increasing costs of maintaining, harvesting, and processing their crops.

Looking to the Future

For years, Jaén’s economy has relied upon agriculture and olive oil production, but local governments are shifting their focus to try and reduce the economic impact of climate change. Although the region has not been a popular destination for vacationers, a burgeoning tourism industry is taking root.

Known locally as “oleoturismo,” olive oil tourism is taking shape in Jaén. Businesses and spas are beginning to offer boutique experiences such as olive oil spa treatments. Visitors can attend olive oil tastings or visit shops that offer special or unique oils. Tourists in the Jaén can even spend a day working on an olive farm.

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About the Author

Joyce Nash is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel and geography. She has almost a decade of writing experience. Her background ranges from journalism to farm animal rescues and spans the East Coast to the West. She is based in North Carolina, and in her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with her husband and two cats.

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