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Andalusian Days (VI): How Much do You Know About Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

SPAIN | Monday, 27 June 2016 | Views [414]

“We’ve had two weeks of rain and strong winds,” Diego says, kicking into the red soil covered by loose mounds of fallen leaves and shrunken olives. “Crazy winds. The flowers were in bloom then, and pollen flying everywhere. You’d step into the groves, and instantly become coated in yellow.”

Stormy as they may be, these are optimal weather conditions for the pollination of the olive trees, which are just beginning to sprout clusters of green buds. The twenty hectares of Hacienda Merrha sprawl over the gentle slopes of the Campina de los Alcores, the highest plateau on the horizon, and the elevation can be felt through the fortifying gusts of wind rustling through the leaves. Around the estate, late spring flowers are just awakening, and butterflies flutter over bushes of golden buds and lavenders. This is the heart of Basilippo’s operation, a small-scale familiar enterprise of world-renowned extra virgin olive oil pressed and bottled on-site. Diego’s cousin, Juana, is in charge of Basilippo’s direction after her husband Juan, the founder and soul of Basilippo, passed away a year ago. The family carried on with resilience, steadfast in their dedication to produce quality extra virgin olive oil and educate the public on the benefits of the mediterranean diet. Each member contributes something--even the elderly Uncle Juan, who lives on the residence and likes, I am told, to recite Alberti’s poems to the olive trees.  

GREEN vs. BLACK OLIVES: MATTER OF DEGREE

A prerequisite to an olive oil education is the understanding of the growth trajectory of the fruit itself. Young olives first develop their pit, then the flesh of the fruit begins to thicken and mature around the pit, and finally the oil that is object of such lust begins to suffuse the fruit.

Noticing that all of the young olives are green, I reveal the depth of my ignorance with a naive inquiry:

“Do you grow only green olives, or do you have black olives as well?”

“Only green,” Diego replies, “But green and black olives are, in fact, the same fruit. The olives turn black when they are more mature, but we harvest them much before here.”

“In Provence, where I am from, black olives are very popular.”

Juana sighs and shakes her head. “Different cultures around the mediterranean basin have very different ideas about what constitutes a good olive. Here, we do not like to use black olives because although they produce a lot of oil due to their age, the fruit also amasses a lot of water, and that dilutes the oil pressed from the olive.”

The traditional harvest of olive trees calls for a rather violent beating of the branches in order to shake a rain of olives onto the ground. Nowadays, the process consists of a more gentle, mechanized combing of the tree, and the olives are gathered in nets spread over the soil. Depending on how late into the season the olives are harvested, their oil content progresses from pure but scarce to more abundant but watered down. The price of the former can easily become astronomical, and Diego explains that as a small company the family tries to optimize the balance for the best quality of oil they can harvest at a still-marketable price. Almost every bottle produced here passes the certification of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), a label I do not quite grasp the meaning of at first. I ask Diego if the denomination concerns the species or quality of the olive, thinking that perhaps there existed such a class as “virgin olives”, or if it was a lack of industrial processing that qualified the oil as virginal.

WHAT DOES "EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL" REALLY MEAN?

“That’s a good question,” Diego says, “because a huge problem with olive oil fraud is that few people outside the industry know what EVOO really means. It is actually a very clinical label, and has little to do with the provenance of the olive and processing method. To get certified, a sample of olive oil is sent to a lab for chemical analysis and tested for the purity of the product. If it passes the chemical round, the oil is then sent to a panel of experts who taste and judge it for defects. A good EVOO needs to taste and smell like fruits, herbs, or vegetables. If it has all three, even better. Defective ones may taste like stones, dirt, or vinegar. If the defects are slight, the oil may still be labeled as ‘virgin’, but the worst ones are sent to process in chemical plants and become refined olive oil. These oils are then mixed with some fresh olive juice, and sold on the market as ‘olive oil’”.

“And the standard is the same globally?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Then why are there so many cases of fraudulent olive oils? How can they get certified?”

“These oil producers and marketers are doing something completely illegal, but often get away with it because of consumers’ lack of education about what makes a good olive oil. Since consumers do not know enough to report a second-rate oil disguised as EVOO, and there are so many brands and manufacturers worldwide, it is hard for inspectors to oversee the veracity of every batch without a more propagated olive oil culture.”

With new determination to, at the very least, become familiar enough with EVOO to avoid getting duped at supermarkets, I follow Diego and Juana into the processing mill. From Phoenician times to the nineteen-eighties, most olive oil was extracted from an open grinding process, where a mule would circle around an elevated platform, pulling a stone grinder that would smash the olives to a pulp. “This may seem very folkloric to you,” Diego says, “the mule, the stone, the ‘traditional’ artisanal process--but, in reality, that method of pressing leads to both the oxidation of the oil and the contamination of the pulp with insects, old oil on instruments, and, worst of all, donkey manure.”

Gulp. How the cold-press process works nowadays, in a sterilized and highly conditioned environment, ensures the integrity of the olive oil as it migrates from tree to bottle. The olives, once picked, are washed and grinded into a paste along with the pits, which boasts precious nutritional qualities. Various systems of centrifuges then separate elements of different weights, extracting the oil away from the flesh, water, and pit particles. The solid and water material leftover from the process are saved to be used again as combustible fuel.

FOR GOOD OLIVE OIL, TEMPERATURE IS KEY

An essential knowledge for anyone who cooks with olive oil is that temperature is the paramount factor in maintaining the quality of the product. A great olive oil can be soiled if stored or used improperly due to its vulnerability to light and heat. The precautions, for producers like Basilippo, begin with the harvest itself--if the summer is too hot during some years, the collection of olives is done in the night. Then, as a constant, the processing of the oil follows a cold extraction method, where the temperature in the room never exceeds twenty-five degrees.

For olive oil owners at home, this means that the environment the oil is stored in should always be below twenty-seven degrees. A rule of thumb, Diego says, is to keep your oil where you keep your wine--somewhere cool, dry, and far away from sunlight, which will make the olive oil go rancid. When picking up an olive oil at a market, make sure to always choose brands with dark bottles, as transparent ones will almost certainly let light compromise the oil. When cooking, keep in mind that although EVOO is the healthiest oil for deep frying, the heat will induce the oil to lose its aromas. This is why EVOO truly shines in Andalusian cuisine, where the oppressing climate is compensated by chilled soups and cold salads, dishes ideal for bringing out the flavor of the oil.

SNIFF LIKE AN EXPERT: GO FOR GREEN, AVOID VINEGAR

Train yourself to recognize quality olive oil with one word in mind: green. No, that is not the color of the oil--in fact, the color of the oil is completely inconsequential to determining its quality. Take a little container of oil, covered to prevent oxidation, and hold the bottom in the palm of your hands so that the slight heat of your skin unleashes the aromas of the oil. Now take a whiff: a good oil will smell “green”, or crisp, citrusy, like tomatoes or apples. If those notes are too subtle for the uninitiated nose to pick up, then there is a much easier cheat for recognizing bad olive oil: Diego gives me another container, filled with a big-name brand oil marketed as EVOO in supermarkets, and asks me to describe the smell. I can’t really, except that it does not smell like green apples, and is dominantly acidic, almost like-- “Yes! Vinegar!” exclaims Diego. “A bad oil will smell sour, like it has already been mixed with vinegar.”

Salmorejo with boiled egg and cured ham

 COOL OFF WITH COLD ANDALUCIAN DISHES WHERE OLIVE OIL IS THE STAR

But today, we forget about the impostor oils and set out to learn how to make delicious dishes in which EVOO is integral. Out in the courtyard, Juana has set up a cooking station with a basket of fresh vegetables, country bread, and small bowls of cured jamon and boiled eggs. From the garlic and the peppers, I can already guess that we are making a typical Andalusian cold soup, the salmorejo. All one needs for it, really, is a good mixer and quality ingredients. We cut up a dozen of red tomatoes, a small cucumber, garlic, a small green onion, and some green peppers. Then, Juana pours about 150 ml of liquid gold--her very own Basilippo olive oil--onto the cut-up vegetables in the mixer. She adds generous chunks of day-old country bread, and a squeeze of lemon. “Some people like to use vinegar instead,” she says. “But as you know now, as olive oil producers, we are not big fans of the flavor of vinegar.”

The mixer whirs, and the ingredients are soon blended into a smooth, salmon-colored concoction. Salmorejo is fairly similar to its famous cousin, gazpacho, except richer and creamier from the marriage of the pureed bread thickened and emulsified with olive oil. To serve, the salmorejo is chilled for a few hours or overnight in the fridge, then topped with another drizzle of olive oil and crumbled egg and cured jamon.

Another extremely simple and ubiquitous starter of the region is patatas alinadas, or cold potato salad. Very dissimilar from the tubs of mayo that comprise another famous spanish potato salad, the ensalada rusa, patatas alinadas focus on crispness and bite. Potatoes are boiled then allowed to cool to room temperature, which is ideal for oil absorption. Green onion and green pepper are diced finely and mixed with the potatoes, along with coarsely chopped parsley, lemon juice, sea salt, and, of course, a hearty dose of olive oil.

Chocolate ice cream with orange-infused olive oil

IN SPAIN, TRACKING YOUR OLIVE OIL INTAKE IS A FUTILE EFFORT...

Juan and Diego seem to forget that I am supposed to eat lunch at Diego’s brother’s restaurant, Mas que Tapas, in the nearby town el Viso del Alcor. They bring out cold white wine, slices of manchego cheese drizzled with vanilla-infused olive oil, and chocolate ice cream in a bath of spicy, orange-infused olive oil. By now I know that pleading for the food parade to cease is futile, and embrace the entire bottle of extra virgin olive oil that must have trickled into my body by now.

Diego chuckles: “Eduardo loves to use our oil in his cuisine, so you haven’t seen the end of it yet.”

Edu, said brother, a gentle giant with a shy, pinched smile, greets us in the small kitchen of Mas que Tapas, a simply decorated restaurant with, as its name suggests, a creative menu rooted on but transcendent of traditional tapas. Edu is a professional chef who completed his apprenticeship in Seville, Catalonia, and London, but dreamt of opening his own restaurant in his natal village, el Viso del Alcor, a few kilometers out of Seville. Perhaps he could have had greater access to a diverse tourist clientele there, but Edu prides himself on rolling out a new menu every season, bringing inventive cuisine straight to the doorstep of his fellow villagers, and retaining items that are most popular with the local regulars.

Tuna tataki with homemade mayonnaise and olive oil at Más que Tapas

 

Shaved foie gras with red wine reduction at Más que Tapas

Fried pork cheeks with avocado hummus at Más que Tapas

Today, he starts us off with lighted crusted olives stuffed with anchovies and fried in olive oil, followed by a martini glass of red tuna tataki in fragrant, spicy Basilippo olive oil and homemade light mayonnaise. The next tapas is a decadent plate of shaved foie gras drizzled with a delightfully jam-like red wine reduction and coarse sea salt. The rich unctuosity of the foie gras is balanced by the clear, palate-cleansing qualities of the next dish, steamed white bacalao on a bed of zucchini pasta topped with a spoonful of black tapenade. The winner of the parade, lightly breaded pork cheeks cooked sous-vide to maintain a milky tenderness and quickly tempura-ed in olive oil, sit atop a creamy green bed of avocado hummus. Lastly, a molten chocolate cake with an oozy center is served with a refreshing scoop of donut-flavored ice cream. 

Edu is counting down the days to the unveiling of his summertime menu, which he has spent the past few weeks experimenting with. “Everytime,” he says, “I’m nervous to hear how the townspeople respond to new creations I rotate out.”

It is an amazing feeling to have patrons ask again and again for an unexpected success, and the most popular, like the tuna tataki, stay on the menu for good. It wasn’t always easy to popularize the concept of innovative cuisine in the town, but after seven years of operation, Edu says it is the neighbors who have allowed his dream to flourish. Any diner can eat a meal of many courses here for less than twenty euros per person, and in exchange support a small town miracle of refined gastronomy. There is no denying the quality and sophistication of the tapas here, and the family’s obvious commitment to the stardom of ingredients could be compared to any refined taperia in Spain’s large cities. No need to seek fame in metropoles for Diego, Juana, and Edu: the magical golden oil grows from the heartland, and its repute travels along the arteries of country roads, finding its way to creamy soups and zesty salads in every household, keeping millennia of mediterranean mystique alive.



Tags: andalucia, cooking, food, gourmet, olive oil, rural, seville, spain, tapas

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