Visiting an Ancient Olive Grove

Don Harris | May 2015

I first met Fermín Rodríguez years ago at the Alimentaria, the amazing food show whose origin dates back over 800 years ago. In Barcelona, we wandered massive halls filled with every imaginable product that farmers proudly provide from the bounty of Spanish agriculture. One hall had hundreds of hams of every conceivable type from all the corners of Spain. If you want to be the ultimate food enthusiast, go to Barcelona in March during the even numbered years. 

At any rate, one of the huge pavilions which most caught my attention was dedicated to extra virgin olive oil, Spain's premier product for thousands of years. In Roman times even the Italians preferred Spanish to Italian olive oil. Today there is a hill in Rome that is actually a massive mound of thousands discarded clay olive oil amphoras that transported olive oil from Spain. When full, they satisfied the desires of all of the the emperors in Rome and their courts.

Tucked in an obscure corner of this hall away from the commercial "big boys," we met Fermín. He was taking turns manning a modest booth, which was sponsored by the families of some producers of the highest quality artisan extra virgin olive oil of his region. In the course of our conversation with him, he invited us to visit his family holdings in the region of Priego de Cordoba - one of those radiant white towns of Andalucía which overlook acres and acres of olive groves.

He was gracious as he showed us around the estate, and reminisced about playing in the olive groves as a boy. He showed us one ancient tree that was huge and gnarled enough to serve as the perfect place to hide when playing hide and go seek.

He offered us his family's extra virgin olive oil, Señorío de Vizcántar, which is composed of a mélange of the fragrant oil pressed from the Hojiblanca, Picual and Picudo trees intermingled in their groves. It is not a single fruit oil but rather a coupage of several which Fermín, as a master taster of the region, blends into a full-flavored fruity oil. Year after year we have tried hundreds of olive oils, but Señorío continues to be our favorite. 

When friends come to me for advice as to where in Andalucía they should explore, I invariably tell them to visit Priego de Córdoba and see our friend Fermín along with his delightful wife Aixa and their frisky little girl, Sofia. I know they will learn all about olive oil, while enjoying the gracious hospitality of the Rodriguez family. One of our customers, Courtenay, wrote this beautiful account of her visit to the olive groves of Vizcántar that I would like to share with you.

"I dreamed I was walking in a grove of ancient olive trees.

Like petrified giants, they stood rooted deep in the soil. Their gnarled trunks seemed made of stone, grey bark riddled with crevices. Only the silvery leaves sprouting from twisted branches fluttered in a sudden breeze.

If those trees could talk, what tales they would tell. Of Romans and Moors who swept across these hills centuries ago, leaving aqueducts and watch towers behind. And of a little boy who played happily among the rabbits and birds, plucking wild asparagus, hiding in a hollow of a tree older than he could count.

But wait. Is this a dream?

No, I’m awake — and I’ve seen that very grove.

It’s near the white town of Priego de Cordoba in Andalucía in southern Spain, off a narrow rutted road more suited to a battered pickup truck than the BMW sedan in which we are jouncing along. In the 18th century Priego was a town made rich by silk production, but today the groves extend as far as the eye can see and olive oil is king.

We’re with Fermin Rodriguez, a burly, soft-spoken man with a radiant smile. His family has tended this grove for three generations, and his brothers still live in the old family home nearby. In town he and his Moroccan wife Aixa have a tasting room, where visitors can sample the award-winning extra virgin olive oil which they bottle and sell under the name Senorio de Vizcantar.

And though he is a polished spokesman for Vizcantar, skillfully guiding novices through the finer points of blending and tasting, once Fermín steps into the grove, the years fall away. “I used to play here,” he recalls happily, as we walk through a field of golden wildflowers.

All around us are magnificent olive trees — Picudo and Hojiblanco, among others — planted old-style, far apart, still bearing fruit into their sunset years. Near a tiny stream Fermín stoops to pluck a few stalks of wild asparagus. He nibbles one end and smiles dreamily. "It’s so delicious. We’ll have it for supper tonight."

At least one of these ancient trees, which he calls "the millenary olive," is estimated to be 1,800 years old, and may have been planted in the time of the Romans. It’s an Hojiblanco and from a distance, it is an ungainly creature with branches, some broken or split, jutting at awkward angles. Only as we get closer do I see how massive the trunk is and how it spreads over the ground. It’s pockmarked with holes and deep crevasses, and on one side, where the wood has rotted away, there is a child-size hollow. "This is where I would hide myself when I was little," Fermin says, laughing at the memory. "I would stay here for hours."

This handsome relic still produces olives which lend their peppery, almond-like flavor to Vizcantar oils.

But our idyllic amble in the grove with Fermín only exposes part of his charm. Back at his retail shop in town, we sit at tables that make it double as a lecture hall. Here tour buses stop frequently so that travelers may complete their education. He teaches pilgrims the difference between good and bad oil, the importance of cooperative enterprise for small producers, and the ritual the novice should practice in tasting olive oils.

As in many industries, olive oil production is dominated by a handful of very large landowners. But then there are a resolute few, like Fermín, who are clever and agile enough to continue the art of their ancestors, making the most of their small holdings. After a chat, we leave for Cordoba, feeling fortunate to have spent a few hours in his company — and to have seen his magnificent grove."