While in many countries, olive oil is a luxury, in Spain it’s hardly hyperbole to say it flows like water. Many here would argue that it is the single most valuable ingredient in Mediterranean cooking, admired for its taste as well as its healthy qualities. Josep Pla, one of the oldest and most influential voices on the subject of Catalan cuisine, said in his legendary El Que Hem Menjat, “I am a great admirer of the olive tree. It is the most beautiful tree in the world, the simplest and the most elegant.” It is an expression that only hints at the deep respect for the olive and its oil that is embedded in Spanish and Catalan culture.
Like a good wine, olive oil expresses the notes of its terroir, which perhaps is what makes it so alluring to the palate and could explain why it has been a staple of the Mediterranean diet for so long. Olive growing has a long history in Spain. It is widely accepted that it was brought to the country by the Phoenicians or the Greeks, although cultivation did not begin until 211 BC. Once it arrived, however, it was here to stay. Today, Spain is the number one producer and exporter of olive oil in the world, leading Italy by more than two times its production in tonnes. Spain boasts 27 Designations of Origin (DOs), 12 of which are in Andalusia. Catalunya is home to five DOs, and olive growing is fairly evenly divided between the Costa Brava, the Costa Daurada and Lleida. Catalunya is blessed with an excellent climate for olive growing. Its valleys protect the trees from the harsh sun and winds while little rain ensures that they don’t get too wet. Each DO has a particular climate and terroir, which gives each oil a unique taste. The slate in the soil around Empordà, for example, means that oils from the northern region will be imbued with a mineral character.
Marc Francesch, co-owner of Ohlive, an olive oil brand from the Costa Daurada, acknowledges that the Catalan landscape plays a big role in the production of high quality oils. He explains that small plantations, steep hills, dry terrain and 300+-year-old trees are a few of the factors that allow the production of “very special oils”. His goal with Ohlive is to showcase the “super-premium products” that are produced in his native Catalunya, although his goal goes beyond the product itself. “Our aim with this project,” he said, “is to express through business the love for our country.”
Olive oil mills, or almazaras in Spanish, are where the olives are pressed. A first pressing preserves the nutrient-rich oil in an extra virgin olive oil, while the oil that comes from a second or third pressing goes into the lesser quality oils. A visit to these olive mills is a great way to get a complete picture of how oil is made, from the harvest to the bottling and labelling of the oils. But if that doesn’t satisfy your appetite, you can make a stop at the Olive Oil Eco-Museum (Ecomuseu de l’Oli) in Pobla de Cèrvoles, the Castelldans Olive Oil Museum or the olive oil theme park in Les Borges Blanques, Lleida. Between November and January, there are also many olive oil-related festivals throughout the region.
Buying olive oil can be a daunting process, but it’s important to remember that choosing an oil is largely a matter of personal taste. Olive oils can range from simple to complex, depending on the varietal, the region, or whether an oil is single origin or blended. Like wine, spirits and coffee, olive oils, too, are rated for quality and defined by their tasting notes. A very fine single variety extra virgin olive oil might show a nose of tender green almonds, the round blush of peaches and apricots, the light sweetness of lychee fruits and the fresh herbaceous bloom of something green. If you prefer something lighter and softer, a local Catalan oil made from arbequinas will probably suit the bill. If your dish calls for a stronger bodied, more pungent oil, it’s best to choose some from the southern climes of Andalusia, where the climate produces characteristically strong tastes. No matter which type you choose, it is best to buy olive oil that comes in a dark glass bottle—this helps protect it from oxidation, which can cause a loss of valuable nutrients. Storing your bottles in a cool, dark place will also ensure its longevity, although it’s best not to keep olive oil around for more than a year, as its nutritional value drops dramatically over time.
Martí, of Oleum Flumen, owns 80 hectares of land in Les Garrigues near Lleida where he produces several high quality extra virgin olive oils and superior vinegars on his property. He hosts tours, tastings and dinners at his place, sharing his love for the land and his work with visitors from around the world. His products reflect the years of work he’s put into caring for his trees and the processes that turn the olives into some of the finest oil in Catalunya. Like others in his field, he knows that olive oil is not just a garnish or an ingredient in a dish. “It’s much more than that,” he said. For him, just as for all Catalans, olive oil is a way of life.
A WELL-OILED TOUR
Here’s a quick roundup of places to visit in two of Catalunya’s prime oil-producing areas.
Olive Oil Eco-museum. Pl. de Sant Miquel, La Pobla de Cèrvoles. 25471 Les Garrigues (Lleida). T. 97 317 5152
Castelldans Olive Oil Museum. Empit 9. 25154 Castelldans (Lleida). T. 97 312 0002
Olive Oil Theme Park. Ctra. N-240, km 71, Masia Salat, Les Borges Blanques. 25400 Les Garrigues (Lleida). T. 97 314 0018
Oleum Flumen. Finca Les Teixeres, N-240 Km 58, 25440 Vinaixa, Les Garrigues (Lleida). T. 97 305 0249 (Call ahead to schedule a visit and tasting)
Where to eat
Bar Restaurante La Llena. Av. de les Garrigues, 16 (local del antiguo Fomento), 25471 La Pobla de Cérvoles. T. 97 317 5117
Where to Stay
Hotel La Garbinada. Plaça Catalunya, s/n, 25160 Grañena de las Garrigas. T. 97 313 6275
Empordalia. Ctra. de Roses s/n, 17494 Pau (Girona). T. 97 253 0140. Call ahead to schedule a visit and tasting
Serraferran. C/ de la Bassa, 20, 17473 Ventalló (Girona). T. 97 279 3076. Call ahead to schedule a visit and tasting
Where to Eat
La Bassa de Ventalló Restaurant & Copes. C/ de la Bassa, 12, 17473 Ventalló (Girona). T. 97 279 3857
Where to Stay
Fundació L’Olivar. Crta. GI-623, Km 12, 17473 Ventalló (Girona). M. 646 081 608