Oil from the Gods
SPAIN Focus; The Olive truely is the taste of Spain, more particularly in the south. Here's an introduction to Andalucian olive oil.
Spanish, and more particularly Andalucían, Olive oil neatly captures the special history that Spain has. Known as Aciete in Spain from the Arabic for olice oil Al-ziet, olive oil abounds in Andalucia and it has some of the world's best oils.
It was considered a peasant food up until this century, but best expresses the best of Spanish cooking, and is essential for any Spanish recipe, and especially so if the recipe is as deceptively simple as one for migas (cooked bread crumbs).
The peasant link has disappeared as production techniques have been significantly improved and the best oil producing regions are all now protected by the 'Denominación de Origen' system. And of this Andalucía is home to over 70% of Spain's Olive groves.
In the 80s and 90s Spain turned to industrial production of oil to boost exports. This industrial focus drew many concerns about the quality of Spanish oil. Often the oil was exported to Italy, re-labelled and re-exported at a high higher price. Recently, there has been a strong and positive move back into artisan and demesne production with many mills in the south recently shifting from selling low-grade oil in bulk to is reputation was much in evidence at markets and small shops where all proclaimed their oil the best in the world.
In Andalusia, the most important olive oil producing areas are in the province of Jaén, where the main olive type is Picual, and other authorised varieties include Verdala, Real, and Manzanilla de Jaén, and in the province of Córdoba, where the authorised DO olive varieties include Picuda (a.k.a. Carrasqueña de Córdoba), Picual, Lechín, Chorrío, Pajarero, and Hojiblanco.
This DO certified Andaluz olive oils tends to be full bodied and tasty; class "A" oils have a maximum acidity of 0.4% and you can taste the body in the oil which is very distinctive compared to the bland oils we usually are offered in Asia. And while it takes some time to get used to, it adds an extra dimension to the food often lacking in our local Spanish cuisine.
This extra dimension can be added to many other things- and while a dish of bread, tomatoes and oil can be insipid and unexciting here at home- the quality of the fresh crusty bread, tomatoes bursting with flavour and strong oil- create a real and long-lasting impression on any tourist in Andalucia. Hence the need to source great local Spanish produce for our restaurant consumption.
Olives are gathered from late November to the end of March, depending on the area and the year's weather. Harvesting is done by hand, or with a stick to shake the fruit onto tarpaulins arranged around the tree (it is sometimes done with a mechanical tree shaker, though this can damage a tree). And while I was unable to see the oil harvest as the olives were still green, it was well described by locals.
Between four and eleven kilos of olives are needed to make one kilo of oil. The oil is separated from the olive fruit by grinding the olives whole and then pressing the resultant mulch or 'pomice'.
Each olive releases a few droplets of oil. This mix of pulp, stone, water and oil is then spun centrifugally, bringing to the surface aceite flor, which is then further treated by decanting and filtering to rid it of water and impurities. While class "B" oils have up to 1% acidity.
The old ways are not dead, and many artisan growers are seeking the old ways with manual pressing (the pomise picture above is from near Jaen and is part of an artisanal press).
These often ancient cast iron presses gently squeeze the oil from the olives. There is no high speed centrifuge, no heated olive mash – just 4,500 pounds per square inch of pressure to release the oil.
The purists say that this method of completely cold pressing the olives makes a better olive oil, whilst others dismiss this as and old wives tale, although for the tourist the old methods take better pictures.
The olives are typically transported to the mills daily, tipped into large steel baskets, called “canastas”, where they are left to “breathe” for a couple of days. After that, they are whisked up a conveyor belt to the blower that removes all the leaves and debris before they are mashed into a paste. This paste is then spread, by hand, onto round woven mats which are placed on top of each other on a large trolley.
When full, the trolley is loaded into the press and the process begins. About four hours later, something that looks like thick dark engine oil is decanted into 25 litre containers . The oil is then left for a few months for the sediment to to settle, and the result is beautifully clear traditional olive oil.
In its latest effort to encourage Spanish olive oil producers to strive for the highest quality, the Ministry of Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs presented three companies the “Best Olive Oil in Spain” award for the 2010-2011. The three best manufacturers for 2011 were Montes Manuel Marin, Priego de Córdoba (Córdoba) in the category “fruity bitter green oils”, Labrador, SAT, Fuente de Piedra (Málaga) for “sweet green fruity oils” and LA Canalejo, SL, Mérida (Badajoz) for “ripe fruity oils” .
In addition, olive growers also have the opportunity to prepare and sell olives for eating. and these tasty morsels can be seen everywhere...