There’s a revolution happening in Spain. Actually, it’s been raging for well over a decade, if not two. Old ways and ideas are being tried, judged heretical and executed. A new religion based on quality and character is driving out the old, the tired, the bland. Where quantity ruled, quality is usurping. Fresh, distinct and individual are the new sacred verses. Though it’s not an ecclesiastical upheaval per se, it is altering (pardon the pun) the nature of one of Spain’s most revered consumables.
Wine, you say? Been there, done that. Spain nailed (ahem) the wine thing eons ago. It’s the nectar of another fruit: a juice that is treated with the same reverence, the same intense passion and, in fact, the same degree of experimentation and technical ingenuity lavished on the country’s finest vintages. We’re talking extra virgin olive oil — the new Spanish doubloon. Spain’s 2.3 million hectares of olive groves (encompassing some 350 million individual trees) were first planted during the time of the Phoenicians who landed in the country around 1050 BCE. Today, over 1,700 producers press about 90 million kilograms of olives per harvest year. The bulk of production lies in the southern areas with the region of Andalucía accounting for almost half of the total output.
pressing for quality
Having secured the lead in terms of quantity (Spain produces more olive oil than any country on earth — yes, more than Italy and more than Greece), the country’s oil barons proceeded to set their sights on quality. Experimentation with yields, density of plantings, harvesting techniques and extraction methods have combined to make the olive oils of Spain (and we’re talking the primo stuff — extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO from this point forward) among the best anywhere.
“There has been a dramatic evolution in the elaboration of olive oil in Spain resulting in greater variety of natural flavours,” reveals Ramón Puglar Lopez of the Asociación Nacional de Expertos en Cata Aceites de Oliva Virgen (you can get by with ANECA). “Agricultural research into optimal irrigation, rapid harvesting, the use of extremely clean stainless steel machinery and precise tracking of the olives from harvest to processing” are a few of the innovations Lopez cites as pivotal to the dramatic increase in the quality of Spanish EVOO. Add to this ongoing research into the specific properties of individual olive varieties, the effects of high (40.5 to 142 tree per hectare) and super-high (243 to 364) density plantings and the application of cold processing and the whole business starts to sound more winey than oily. staying single or mixing it up In fact, comparing olive to grape is probably the best way for a neophyte EVOO connoisseur — albeit with a decent understanding of wine — to get up to speed on the stuff, from production through to tasting.
Olive varieties such as Picual, Picudo, Hojiblanca, Arbequina and Cornicabra are to Spanish EVOO what Tempranillo, Garnacha, Viura, Verdejo and Palomino are to Spanish wine – though in both cases, these examples represent but a smattering of what can be found throughout the country. Each olive variety brings individual flavour components to the palette of the almazara maestro (the master of the olive mill). As with wine, the maestro can craft a “varietal” oil from a single type of olive or create a coupage incorporating a mix of varieties. And it’s no coincidence that vineyards and olive groves are often seen planted in close proximity. Both thrive in soil that wouldn’t support crops requiring a higher nutrient level. In the field, grapes and olives are subject to similar influences. “The amount of hydration and light, the climatic conditions at the time of fruit maturation and harvest and the incidence of pests and disease all affect the quality of the end crop,” explains Isidro Palacios Negueruela, agricultural engineer at Bodegas Roda, a winery in Rioja that specializes in both award-winning wines and olive oils from two estates, one on Majorca and another northeast of Barcelona. “Sunny days and cold nights, only some rain followed by more sun and a little wind make for great vintages in both crops,” adds Roda’s export manager Gonzalo Lainez Gutierrez.
hands on, hands off
When it comes to harvesting, the “hand” or “mechanical” debate is as lively in the groves as it is in the vineyards and for similar reasons. Hand pickers swear that this method allows for careful selection of the fruit in its best condition, while mechanical harvesters assert that the speed at which the fruit is harvested and pressed is crucial to quality. “Harvesting by hand allows us to actually choose which branches of the trees should be picked right now and which should wait for a second turn,” says Antonio Blasco, Managing Director of his family-owned Molí d’oli Gasull. The beauty is that no matter what method is chosen, spectacular results can be obtained. Dolores Smith, the oil baroness behind Ontario’s Olivar Corp and the importer of high-end Spanish EVOO not only from Bodegas Roda but also Almazaras de la Subbética, Molí d’oli Gasull and Pago Baldios de San Carlos notes that mechanized harvesting is definitely becoming more popular in Spain. “My producers tell me that this is primarily done to reduce costs as well as to ensure higher quality when harvesting a large area at peak ripeness and decreasing the time that elapses from harvest to milling. I’m also told that mechanization can help avoid the problems associated with a lack of labour availability for picking manually at the peak of fruit ripeness.” the faster the better.
No matter what method is chosen, getting the olives from tree to press as quickly as possible spells the difference between the great and not-so-great. “The olive starts to degrade quickly after it is removed from the tree,” Smith emphasizes. Her suppliers harvest and press in the span of as little as an hour while high-end producer Valderrama boasts an impressive “tree to table” time of 45 minutes. The key to this type of “fast food” is having mills on each farm being harvested. You can read all about the techniques for pressing, decanting and filtering on the websites of most of the producers mentioned in this story (Google, ask for it by name). Suffice to say that, as is the case with, for example, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, stainless steel clean enough to eat off of and cool temperatures play an important role in keeping the stuff fresh and vibrant. Most top producers like Valderrama store their finished EVOO in tanks topped with a blanket of inert nitrogen and only bottle once an order for sale has been received (sort of the EVOO equivalent of R.D. Champagne … just sort of, okay? Jeez, calm down already). They also top each bottle with nitrogen to preserve freshness.
But how does all this impact the taste? What makes the flavour of Spanish EVOO distinctly different from, say, Italian, French or Greek? David Medeiros of The Village Olive Grove, an Elora, Ontario shop specializing in EVOO and vinegars exclusively and who stocks the high-end Castillo de Canena among its broad selection, offers the following: “People are very familiar with Italian and Greek olive oils and are quite surprised at the light and delicate mouth feel of Spanish olive oils … how they evaporate in your mouth, yet have flavours that last like the finish of a beautiful Bordeaux.” Or perhaps a great Rioja? Interestingly, he finds French and Spanish olive oils pair optimally with bread that does not have a sourdough starter, whereas Italian numbers marry best with those that do.
Making high-test EVOO takes patience and passion. Selling the stuff in North America perhaps requires even more. If you read the tasting notes, you’ll notice that the juice ain’t cheap. Castillo de Canena’s limited edition “First Day of Harvest” is almost $50 for a 500 ml (sexy red designer) bottle. Valderrama’s “Grand Cru” commands $23 for a 250 ml (sexy forest green mini amphora) dose. But with the gourmet crowd used to paying through the nose for must-have wines, a few bucks for a superb EVOO you’d think would be a no-brainer. Think again. passion, persistence and patience “People get all bent outta shape about friggin’ wine,” observes the ever-shy and reserved Anna Marie Kalcevich whose Pasquale Bros Downtown Ltd caters to the palates of (primarily) Italian and Spanish food junkies, and whose West Toronto shop carries a number of Spanish oils including the excellent Oro del Desierto and Valderrama brands. “What about olive oil, which you use far more of?” Okay, well, if I consumed more olive oil than wine I’d be having some pretty serious gastrointestinal issues. However, her implication — that people will drop serious coin on wine, yet freak at the price of EVOO, is worth considering. In reality, a good shot of EVOO is cheaper than your morning java (see sidebar). But education is still critical. “Many retailers are currently following a bit of a learning curve,” Smith admits. “Overall, consumers and retailers have to gain a better understanding of the uses, uniqueness and complexity of Spanish virgin olive oil. I’ve used it in mango/limew emulsions, in pancakes, with chocolate, with fruit, cheese, drizzled into soups and stews … so much more than just typical salad dressings and for dipping — though I’d certainly recommend those uses as well.”
All said, peddling in the stuff can be exhausting. The Smiths, Mederios and Kalcevichs of the world have to be importers, sellers, educators and experts at once. “At 55, I probably shouldn’t be doing this,” Smith laughs on the phone from yet another Saturday in-store tasting demonstration. “But my dream and vision is to bring the wonderful flavours of Spanish virgin olive oils to Canadians. Hearing someone at one of my tasting events exclaim “Wow!” is what makes it worthwhile.” And hopefully all those wonderful health-sustaining properties of Spanish EVOO will assist in the ongoing realization of a dream.
it’s cheaper than you think (and probably cheaper than Starbucks)
Yeah, you might spend $30 on a bottle of quality Spanish EVOO, but break it down (as the peeps in my ‘hood would say). Thirty bucks for a 500 ml bottle. That bottle holds about 34 tablespoons. A serving (and this isn’t frying-grade stuff, dear friends) is maybe a drizzle here and there: let’s say three tablespoons tops if you are really kickin’ it; about 0.04 litres. If my math is correct (a dubious assertion), that adds up to a staggering, bankruptcy-inducing 60 cents per meal. Ouch. Can’t go there, gotta feed the kids dontcha know (and you spend how much each morning at Starbucks?). Besides, unlike wine, a bottle of EVOO can be kept open for far longer without spoilage (most cite three months, but I’d be careful here. I keep mine under gas – the same stuff used to preserve opened bottles of wine. In any case, the same rules for wine apply; away from heat, air and light and consume ASAP).
Here’s an idea. Split a 500 ml bottle with a friend. Repack it into ten 50 ml “mini” booze bottles and take five each. These small “serving size” portions will ensure the oil stays out of contact with air until it is ready for use. If you don’t know what to do with the hooch that used to be in the minis, give me a call. I have a few ideas. A Little Taste Tasting EVOO is not unlike tasting wine. However, rather than looking for balance between fruit, acid and alcohol — as you would in a white wine — you are instead interested in the harmony of fruitiness, bitterness and piquancy. And, much like it is a bit unfair to judge a wine without a food match, tasting some of these oils straight up can result in severe palate-zap.
Almazaras de lar Subbética Rincón de la Subbética [Picual/Hojiblanca] ($40/500 ml)
Cut grass, green bean and banana on the nose with floral/fruity (citrus) and white pepper, almond and sage overtones. Almost breathtakingly peppery on the finish with notes of bitter greens (radicchio?) and a slight fruitiness. Exceptional length. Bodegas Roda Dauro [Arbequina/Hojiblanca/Koroneiki] ($30/500 ml) “It’s superlative for drizzling over fish, shellfish and roasted vegetables at the last moment — to me it has the most luscious and fruity characteristics of any Spanish olive oil,” says über-chef Charlie Trotter. Green Tomato, almond, white pepper, banana and some herbal (sage) notes on the nose follow through to a very well-balanced combination of textures and flavours that include a buttery mouthfeel with green tomato and banana overtones; mild pepper and a touch of bitterness on the finish.
Bodegas Roda Aubocassa [Arbequina] ($30/500 ml)
Grassy/green olive aromas with some herbal/spice elements, this oil from groves on the island of Mallorca is full, balanced and mildly peppery on the finish with hints of walnut and bell pepper.
Castillo de Canena “First Day of Harvest” [Picual] ($49.95/500 ml)
A limited edition (20,000 bottles) oil, it sports buttery, herbal, complex aromatics with traces of citrus, mint and mild tropical fruit. Assertive with tomato leaf, citrus and a perfect bitter/peppery balance capped by a long, long finish.
Moli d’oli Gasull [Arbequina] ($15/500 ml)
Very forward and fruity with a distinctive Granny Smith apple note. More forward fruitiness than many of the others with less emphasis on the peppery/bitter notes. Excellent value.
Oro del Desierto [Picaul/Arbequina/Hojiblanca/Lechin] ($18.50/500 ml)
Very fragrant and assertive with an intense green herb nuances and a piquant, fruity palate. Exceptional balance. Zesty, fresh, herbaceous and spicy. A great buy.
Pago Baldios San Carlos Oro San Carlos [Aberquina/Cornicabra] ($30/500 ml)
Fresh cut grass, ripe banana and citrus notes segue to full, fruity flavours with a terrific balance between fruit/bitter/pepper (just what the experts look for), capped off by a long, memorable finish.
Valderrama Arbequina ($11/250 ml)
A “varietal” oil with nutty (almond)/green bean/fresh herb aromas which are mirrored in the mellow, fruity flavour. Viscous, round and full with a very mildly peppery finish.
Valderrama “Grand Cru” [Arbequina/Hojiblanca/Picudo/Ocal] ($22.95/250 ml)
Aromas suggest artichoke, anise, cut grass, melon, peppercorn and banana. Rich, complex and assertive with hot, spicy end notes. Certainly lives up to “grand cru” status.