Artisan olive oils from Spain

“Hay que mimarlo.”

“Sí, hay que mimarlo.”

Jorge Petit, General Manager of Masía el Altet, producers of premium extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs) in Ibi, Alicante, Spain, and I are on the same wavelength, talking about our passion for EVOOs that span centuries, cultures, geographies.

One thing is certain. Though many people are mistaken that Italy produces the most and best EVOOs, Spain is the biggest producer by volume — approximately 750,000 tons for the 2014 harvest in comparison to 1,400,000 tons in 2013. Spain is also home to innovative companies such as Masía el Altet, family-run, and professionally managed. They are pushing the frontiers of science, using stringent production and cold-extraction methods in mills such as Almazara San Joaquin in Agramón, Albacete, which draw upon the wisdom of their fathers and forefathers to treat their oils with love and respect.

Just like socarrat* which is produced after cooking authentic paella, premium EVOOs live and breathe their environment. The trees are gnarly, hardy by nature, and full of character; the leaves are used for a herbal infusion with Japanese green tea, orange peel, cornflower and hibiscus, a marriage of East and West. The fruit in Ibi, Alicante, exhibit traces of lavender, mint, fennel, rosemary and sage which grow in the vicinity and form part of the micro climate wherein temperatures drop by almost 10 degrees Celcius in less than half an hour’s ride by car.

“The Masía is located in a narrow valley, surrounded by mountains with vegetation of pine, holm oak, kermes oak, savin, juniper, ash, maple, gall oak, etc. Half of the olive farm lies within the Font Roja Nature Reserve and the other half in the Sierra de Mariola Nature Reserve; it is an extraordinarily beautiful spot, as expressed in the writings of the illustrious botanist and historian Don Antonio Cavanilles in his 1797 book Observaciones sobre la historia natural, geográfica y agrícola sobre el Reino de Valencia.

From the heart of Alicante, Jorge and I make our way through three provinces: Alicante, desert-like Murcia, and Albacete, and to the mill where we’re received by Pedro, María Ángeles, Antonio and their father.

María Ángeles tells me she grew up at the Almazara, and that her little nephew Antonio, named after her brother, can tell by taste the difference between a picual and other varieties of EVOO. Pedro joined the Almazara in his 20's and is thorough in his job. There is pride and joy in the way they all speak of the EVOOs they mill. They are constantly testing, probing and cleaning the machinery and equipment; and monitoring the whole process of cleaning, milling, cold-extraction and purification, storage and maturation by adjusting parameters and measuring with scientific precision the ‘growth’ of their EVOOs. Jorge says: “The extraction of our oil is carried out with high-technology machinery using a two-phase system at a very low temperature; the perfect way to obtain the best organoleptic and aromatic qualities.”

What sets Masía el Altet and Almazara San Joaquin apart from their competitors? Their uncompromising work, their love of EVOOs which steers them toward honest, fair trades in a world in which the Adulteration of Extra Virgin Olive Oil is far too common. And the adulteration of our tastebuds by big manufacturers who appropriate the term “extra virgin” to give us anything but.

There is hope. There is optimism and the promise of exciting times ahead for EVOOs from Spain. It’s about time.

  • Socarrat is “the layer of toasted rice at the bottom of the pan. This is considered a delicacy among Spaniards and is essential to a good paella. The toasted rice develops on its own if the paella is cooked over a burner or open fire.” In our rabbit and snail paella, eaten near the Almazara, the fire was fueled by grape twigs.
  • Sue’s trip to Ibi, Alicante, Spain was courtesy of Masía el Altet, award-winning producers of premium extra-virgin olive oils. L’atelier de Joël Robuchon — Bangkok is the latest establishment to feature EVOOs from Masía el Altet.

Sue does boutique gourmet tours in Barcelona, Spain. She can be contacted at: http://about.me/suechien.lee

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