Going the Extra Mile (Literally)

Don Haris | March 2014

I find it fascinating that such a pure and simple product as the natural juice of an olive has been central to the diet of all civilizations of the Mediterranean. The Egyptians, Palestinians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans all knew how vital it was and planted olive groves throughout the known world. Those of us who live outside of the Mediterranean are now just rediscovering how vital olive oil can be to our general health.

Modern nutritional studies confirm what our forbearers always knew: olive oil is an essential part of a balanced diet. It is easily digested, and quickly and completely absorbed by the system. It is high in vitamins A, D, K and E and it has an anti-oxidant effect on the human body. Studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil also stimulates bone growth and calcium absorption. It aids the circulatory system, thereby reducing the risk of arteriosclerosis. 

A Harvard scientist wrote: "An olive-oil-rich diet is more effective than a low-fat diet in controlling and treating obesity. Moreover, it leads to longer-lasting weight loss and it is easier to keep to because it tastes good." I am sure that all of this is true, but somehow chemical analysis doesn’t even begin to address the beauty of olive oil that I enjoy every time I use it in cooking, in salads or even as a salve for my hands. 

One of the lasting images I have from when I first visited rural Spain almost 50 years ago was watching the people working in the groves to harvest olives. As my wife and I were driving our tiny Seat 600 rental car through one of the myriad olive groves in Spain, we paused to watch a group of villagers working together to obtain olives to make olive oil. 

We saw fathers and sons spreading tarpaulins under the trees, and then striking the olive-laden branches with sticks in order for the ripe fruit to fall into the waiting cloths. They would then take their carts full of fruit to the neighboring mill where the plump olives would be cleaned of twigs, thoroughly washed and then fed into the granite millstone that turned the oil laden ripe olives fruit into a mash that was then pressed between esparto mats to extract the extra virgin olive oil.

What I found remarkable about the scene of the men striking the trees with poles, is that we could have been witnessing this same event hundreds of years earlier. Essentially the same process is used then and now to harvest the ripe olives to produce premium extra virgin olive oil. For the estate-bottled artisan product, there are no huge machines or ravaged trees, just regular people gathering the right fruit as they always have done with only a modicum of change.

I am sure you know that extra virgin olive oil is the backbone of the healthy Mediterranean diet, but you may not realize that Spain produces nearly as much olive oil as the rest of the world combined. During the time of the Caesars in Rome, Spain was the preferred source for olive oil. Ships crammed to the gunnels with large terra cotta amphorae delivered extraordinary amounts of Spanish olive oil to Rome. Recently archaeologists discovered to their amazement that some of the rolling hills near Rome were actually a landfill for thousands of broken terracotta containers, now centuries later covered with accumulated soil! 

One of the ironies of history is that Spain still dispatches much of her olive oil to Italy in massive tanker ships. But this time it is not for the enjoyment of the Caesars. Believe it or not, the olive oil from Spain is rebottled and rebranded for the unsuspecting consumer who is convinced that the only quality olive oil comes from Italy. 

So you can see that you need to be careful to discern what you think you are buying when it comes to extra virgin olive oil. Read the label carefully. The seemingly Italian-looking label might inform you (in fine print) that it is a combination of oils of varying quality from Tunisia, Spain, Italy or Greece. The situation is reported in great detail in a fascinating new book entitled Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. He provides a historical overview of olive oil from ancient times and authoritatively documents the shenanigans that are typical in today’s marketplace. It is an entertaining and eye-opening read.

Since it is so costly to produce extra virgin olive oil, it is tempting for an unscrupulous merchant to cut the oil with less expensive processed oil, figuring that you will never notice the difference. If you see a liter of Spanish extra virgin olive oil priced at $7.50, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled oil. That price would barely cover the expense of the bottle and delivery to the store. Extra virgin oil is not just another cooking oil for your kitchen - interchangeable with oil mechanically extracted from corn, canola, safflower or sunflower, any more than oleomargarine is equivalent to fresh butter. 

If price is your major concern, there are adequate olive oils available in the market whose price point is lower because it is produced in great volume, similar to bulk wine. The producer gathers olive oils from random sources - whatever is available at a lower price. Because the bottler cannot vouch for the integrity of his original source, there is no quality control as you would find with an estate-bottled oil. 

Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil made by individual artisans is essentially another product, in the same way that Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is a different product from ordinary ham, or a fine Rioja from family-tended vineyards is not the same as a boxed wine. Supermarket olive oil is a different product. So many times, when in our store in Williamsburg, I offer a crust of bread dipped in one of these quality olive oils, the customer exclaims, “So that’s what the excitement about extra virgin olive oil is all about. I would never have dreamed there would be such a difference.” 

If this is the quality of olive oil you are seeking to garnish green salads, dipping with crusty bread and general gourmet cooking, how can you be sure of the quality of extra virgin olive oil on the store shelf? 

The fail-safe way is to know the producer personally. But for most of you this is not an option. As an alternative, we propose that you trust our family who has done your homework for you. To tell you what I mean I’d like to recount for you the story of three representative artisans we have selected to supply us with their fine extra virgin olive oil. As with any interchanges in Spain, there is no substitute for personal relationships to assure that what you receive is the best in Spain. 

For each of these three families, olive oil is central to their consciousness: their view of the olive groves and the oil they produce almost borders on the sacred. Creating extra virgin olive oil is an art, much like producing fine wines. To offer quality olive oil is a commitment of a lifetime. 

One of my most enjoyable and significant visits in Spain was when my wife Ruth and I met Hans and Daida de Roos, a Dutch couple with family ties to Cataluña. He retired from the commercial world of shipping to his XII Century finca named Can Solivera to produce the finest olive oil from arbequina olives. For Hans compromise is unthought-of and purity is a given.

One time he and his wife Daida took my son Jonathan and me to an olive mill close to the stone village of Mequinenza in rural Aragón, where he wanted to introduce us to his friend Antonio Rey who presses Hans’s Wild Olive Oil using medieval methods. The olives from the local trees are cold pressed the old fashioned way - with a massive granite millstone. The resultant mash is sandwiched between discs and hydraulically pressed rather than using the modern and efficient centrifuge process of 99% of the other producers. 

Hans was almost as excited as the miller, Antonio, as they explained the age-old way of making olive oil - even carried to the extent of filtering the fresh juice by gravity as the Romans used to do. It has turned out well. His Can Solivera Wild Olive Oil is now used by El Celler de Can Roca, named the best restaurant in the world in 2013.

Another quite different experience was when Ruth and I visited the stylish and dynamic Rosa Vañó at her family’s castle. The ancient structure dominates the village of Canena, located in the vicinity of Jaén, the center of olive oil production in Andalucía. 

We walked across the moat on a heavy wooden drawbridge leading into the castle, where we were met by Rosa, a remarkable young woman who left a major commercial position in Madrid in order to devote all her energies to producing the finest olive oil in the world. After we chatted before a huge stone fireplace, Rosa ushered us into a dining room where we had an elegant lunch, followed by a tour of the castle. 

But what was most remarkable of all was the tour of their olive oil production area. She explained that they had spared no expense to acquire the finest precision equipment and were clearly committed to the achievement of the highest level of quality. Again, as with Hans, her focus was on creating the very best. Nothing less would suffice. Particularly amazing were the oils we sampled from the first day of harvest. The oils were so green they almost glowed and the immediacy of the freshness and piquant flavor were truly inimitable.

We also often visit our friend Fermín Rodriguez, his wife Aixa and little Sofía in the dramatic white town of Priego de Córdoba. His family's dedication to olive oil stretches back as long as he can remember. Fermín proudly showed us the vast expanse of olive trees owned by his family for generations. He likes to point out one of the gnarled trees on his property, which is over a thousand years old. Nearby is another ancient tree where, within its hollowed trunk, he used to play hide and seek as a child.

Fermín is an official taster for the Priego de Córdoba Denomination of Origin. He and a handful of others guarantee quality control for the oils produced in this ancient town. Using his amazing palate and years of experience he has created a bright and fragrant coupage, or blend, named Señorío de Vizcántar, which is a favorite of La Tienda customers. Each year the proportion of different types of olives he chooses is different yet because of his artistry, the balance of flavors remains constant, year after year. 

His wife Aixa is delightful. She is from Tunisia and jokingly refers to herself as a ‘Jewish Muslim Catholic,’ since her family origin reflects all of the rich cultures which make up Andalucía. The pride of their life is Sofía, their very frisky four-year-old daughter. She is already fluent in two languages. What fun it is to sit out in the Plaza under the palm trees with Fermín and his warm and welcoming family and enjoy hours of tapas and conversation.

Just about every time we visit Spain we renew our wonderful friendships with these small artisan producers. We have also introduced Fermín and his family to some La Tienda friends who were traveling in Andalucía. Several have dropped by Priego de Córdoba, where they are treated to an olive oil tasting and even a visit to the olive groves. Let me know if you would like to visit them as well. But most of all I hope that I have helped you to have confidence to purchase the finest extra virgin olive oil. There really is a vast difference, and as you pour the golden green oil that is the best in Spain, I am sure your family and your guests will enjoy the magic of this pure unadorned treasure whose roots run deep in history.