23 Feb

The extra virgin diaries

By Clarissa Hyman,

1501_08_80_web.jpgThe hills or, rather, the imposing mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees, were alive with the sound of sniffing and slurping. About 150 noisy olive oil producers were packed into the small meeting hall in the tiny Catalan village of Erill la Vall, dominated by the slender, six-tiered bell tower of its 11th- century Romanesque stone church, typical of the scenic Vall de Boí. Outside, icy rain was threatening to turn to sleet but inside the mood was festive. It was the ninth annual open competition last year to judge the best extra-virgin olive oil made solely from Arbequina olives, the classic Catalan varietal, and the farmers had taken a rare day off mid-harvest to drive up to a “valley as beautiful as our oil”.

The Arbequina – mmm, just roll the word around your tongue – is generally believed to have come to Catalonia from Jerusalem via Arab-ruled Mallorca. Later, in the 18th century, it became the region’s main commercial crop after the Duke of Medinaceli, Lord of Arbequa (hence the name) subsidised planting and encouraged new growing techniques. His innovative ideas – intensive planting, careful pruning and harvesting, and milling soon after picking – all survive.

The rugged province of Lleida has the highest concentration of groves, which are valued for the small olives that yield a high percentage of sweet and grassy oil and are low in bitter or peppery notes. Although the spindly, compact trees have been planted elsewhere in Spain and in places such as California and Argentina, the Catalans do not accept that good Arbequina oil could possibly come from anywhere other than their own “patria chica”.

“Green tomatoes,” pronounced Maria Angels Calvo, head of the independent judging panel, “with a hint of artichokes and green almonds, fruity and aromatic with a good balance in the mouth.” She was describing the winner, made by a co-operative near Flix, pressed from olives picked at the start of the season in order to capture the fresh, green flavour at its most intense.

Their prize was more than honour alone: they would receive a premium price for the oil destined to be bottled as Románico Esencia, a limited edition run of 10,000 elegant green and gold bottles, and the crème de la crème of the Arbequina crop.

Olive oil expert Judy Ridgway rates Esencia highly and describes it a good all-round oil, suitable for most applications. “Arbequina used to produce rather plain oils,” she says, “but now the producers are picking earlier and using more up-to-date equipment, the result is more complex, attractive and not too aggressive.”

The competition is organised by Agroles, a Lleida-based co-operative of co-operatives that markets oils, vinegar and superb almonds fried in olive oil under the Románico label. It is a unique, two-tier structure that reflects the extent to which the Catalan economy is driven by family businesses, and where growers also have a strong communal sense that they are “stewards of the land”.

Formed in 1980, Agroles represents 5,000 small to medium-sized growers organised into 37 co-ops, each with its own artisan mill: the proximity of the trees to the mill ensures picking and pressing happens with maximum speed, and that the olives from contrasting local terroirs are milled separately.

The structure also helps with marketing and distribution in a sector where margins are tight, as well as with technical improvements and quality standards. The latter sounds obvious but when they introduced a tasting board in 1992, the reaction was mixed. As Carlos Coiduras, director-general, explained: “The problem is that everyone thinks they produce the best oil in Spain! It was difficult at first for people to admit there could possibly be the tiniest flaw in their oil, but while we have criteria, we are not the police. If an oil has faults, it will show in the tasting.”

This reflects another strong Catalan trait: independence of thought. Although the first European Denominación de Origen (DO) for oil was set up in Les Garrigues in Lleida in 1975, the Románico oils bear neither of the two regional appellations.

“We prefer to focus on quality, not origin or rigid technical parameters. Some of our producers are in nearby Navarra, for example, and under the DO terms they could not be included. Mostly, though, it’s about keeping control of our own product, and sharing the load in good years and bad.”

Before they headed back to the fields, this year’s Románico Esencia winners were quietly celebrating. “We didn’t expect it, of course, but I can’t say we were surprised,” said co-op boss Joan Pardeu. “After three difficult years – two droughts and a freeze – the quantity and quality of this year’s harvest is high but, really, success is down to good handling and milling.”

Works manager Joaquim Esbla, however, was passing on the Cava. “I don’t drink. I’m just going to sip a glass of my own olive oil.”

That may be a drop too far for most of us, but it is impossible to imagine life in an olive-oil free zone, so extensively has it dripped into our collective gastronomic consciousness. It is now a common denominator of global village cuisine, although more than one confused young chef will drizzle and dribble his extra-virgin on anything from date and walnut bread to hot pie and peas.

[Source] Click here

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