Photo by Patricia Esteve
When you think of oil and Spain, you immediately think of olives. Quite possibly you see rolling hills stretching out endlessly into the horizon, burnt umber fields dotted with pretty little olive trees and their silvery leaves. At least that’s what you would imagine if you’ve ever taken the morning train from Barcelona to Granada, which trundles into Jaén just as the sun is setting, turning the olive-tree bespangled landscape into a pink heaven. But that’s another story.
To start at the beginning, unlike many natural products that Spain is famous for—tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, all of which arrived relatively late—Romans were already exporting Andalucian oil around the Mediterranean two thousand years ago. And it is thought that the trees first arrived on Spanish soil a good thousand years before that, most likely from Asia Minor (more or less Greece and Turkey in modern terms). These first olives were Olea europaea, originally cultivated in Greece and Crete.
Olive oil is one of the country’s most valuable resources. There are more olive groves here than anywhere else in Europe, covering some two million hectares of land, and around 215 million trees, resulting in 300,000 tonnes of oil produced every year for export alone. The oil being infinitely more important than the fruit. The industry recognises several regions from the Empordà, Siruana and La Garriga here in Catalunya, to the vast olive plantations of Andalucia principally in the provinces of Córdoba and Jaén (which account for more or less 60 percent of the total crop), to the scrubby deserts of Aragon and the unlikely, but no less important, micro-plantations of La Rioja.
Reading the labels takes some education. Oils in Spain are split into different grades: extra virgin (no more than one-percent acidity), virgin (no more than two-percent acidity), ordinary virgin (no more than 3.3-percent acidity), lampante virgen (also no more than 3.3-percent acidity, but generally only sold to wholesalers) and plain old olive oil (no more than 1.5-percent acidity, but it is just refined lampante olive oil mixed with a dash or two of virgin or extra virgin). My main point is, if it’s not extra virgin or virgin, don’t buy it.
It’s also worth looking out for any information on harvesting. If the harvest was early (early autumn) then the oil will tend to be greener and more bitter tasting. Later harvests (winter/early spring)—when the fruit is ripe and squishy—yields milder, fruitier oils. When the olives arrive at the mills they are crushed, together with their pits, to make a mixture called ‘mash’. The mash is then pressed to extract the oil from the paste. Once the oil has risen to the top and is free of impurities, it is put into stainless steel tanks and generally left to mature for three to six months before bottling.
Note, please, that the term ‘cold pressed’ is fairly meaningless marketing jargon. The only time heat is applied to oil is when it is refined, so in fact all oils, except plain olive oil, are ‘cold pressed’. However, the term might just add a euro or two to a bottle’s price. Clever that.
Olive oil should be kept in a cool dark place, and away from the cooker, as heat can make it turn rancid quickly.
There are at least six recognised types of olive, each admired for its different characteristics:
It has made its name as a northern olive, grown mostly across Aragón and Catalunya, though this pea-sized, greyish-brown olive grows all across the country. Their low yield, and tiny size, means they have to be picked by hand, which ensures a consistently high quality. Assuming then that the best of them come from the north, oil from these olives is also considered the finest of olive oils. A deep gold colour with hints of grass green, this is the perfect salad olive oil and makes a mean alioli or mayonnaise.
Grown mainly in Castilla-La Mancha, this is nicknamed the ‘regal’ olive locally, and is considered one of the best eating olives the Mediterranean has to offer. The name, meaning ‘goat horn’, reflects the shape of the fruit itself, while the taste, far from being goaty, is rounded, full-flavoured and vegetal rather than fruity, with a sweetish, peppery finish. The texture remains firm, making them perfect for martinis.
One of the oldest species of olive, the colour of the oil is burnished gold with a bitter-sweet taste and fresh, green notes. The fruit ranges from violet to black, and it is popular for making tapenades, but they also make good eating, particularly those from Aragón and Priorat, which have a meaty, tangy flesh. The oil isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but by degrees, it is perhaps one of the most sophisticated oils offering incredible complexity and depth of flavour. It’s particularly good drizzled over sheep’s milk cheeses.
HOJIBLANCA AND PICUDA
Córdoba is the home of these two, somewhat lesser olives, both of which share almost sweet and sour aromas. It can also sometimes have a hot edge that catches in the back of your throat, which, if you like a little bit of spice, makes it great for dipping with bread. Generally though, these oils are more for cooking, particularly for the fried snacks that Andalucians are so fond of, as the heating point is relatively high.
Grown mostly in Jaén, this olive has large, purplish-black fruit and yields lots of highly aromatic juice. Connoisseurs compare these aromas to dried figs and peaches, and in the south, at least, it is used together with thyme honey and cinnamon to make a sweet, refreshing salad of orange slices and the olive fruit itself. It’s mildness makes it popular, and certainly this is an oil to savour, and use fresh rather than cooked.
From way down south in the province of Málaga, oils from this olive are delightfully golden, light with faint aromas of almonds, and extremely delicate. In fact, they are not terribly easy to come by outside of the area in which they grow, but well-worth looking out for there. They also make good eating olives, generally served cracked and marinated with garlic, lemons, vinegar and oregano.
This fabulous recipe for tapas olives was provided by Sarah Stothart, the chef at Tapioles 53 (Tapioles 53, Poble Sec; Tel. 93 329 2238):
250g plain green olives with pits in
1 tbsp dried thyme
Sprig dried rosemary
2-3 cloves of garlic
3 slices lemon
20 whole black pepper corns
Crush olives with rolling pin to split the skin. Mix in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients and a splash of olive oil so that the herbs stick to the fruit of the olives. Pack the olives tightly into a jar and cover with olive oil. Leave in the fridge for at least three weeks before eating.