Twisting out of the dry Andalusian hillside looking more like a fossil than a living thing, the Millennial Olive of Arroyo Carnicero is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old and is still producing fruit harvested for olive oil.
Located in an unassuming and easily missed olive grove in Andalusia, on Spain’s southern border, the Millennial Olive stands out from the surrounding trees for its impressive size, old age, and strange appearance. It looks like three separate trees standing in a row, but is actually a single tree with one root system that was pruned into separate trunks to allow more leaves to be exposed to sunlight.
The ancient olive trees that dot this region may have been planted by the Phoenicians, who visited the Iberian Peninsula around 1,500 BC and made what is now Andalusia part of their largely sea-based empire. Or perhaps by the Romans, who swept into the area around 200 BC, or by the armies of Islam that colonized large parts of what is now Spain starting in 711 CE. Precise dating is impossible as the cores of many of the trees have rotted out and there are no rings to count.
What we do know is that evidence of a Roman olive oil mill, dated to around the first century BC, can be found in the remains of the nearby Villa de Aratispi. Spain has long been a major source of olive oil, and oil made from ancient trees can be found for sale in retail stores or restaurant kitchens throughout the country. The oil from these trees is very mellow, without much bite, but with good body and personality.
These days, olives are usually harvested with electric or gas-driven shakers that latch onto a branch, or even a whole tree trunk, to vigorously jostle off the olives, which are then collected in nets laid on the ground. For trees as old and fragile as the Millennial Olive, the olives are carefully picked by hand, as they were centuries ago.