Spanish Olive Oil 101 & Where to Buy

Spanish Olive oil 101
Learning about liquid gold in Spain’s biggest production region

One of the best food experiences we had in 2012 was definitely our trip to Jaén to learn all about the extra virgin olive oils produced in the region. It was an intense two days of Spanish olive oil 101, but we loved every minute of it! We didn’t have much time to become experts– the summit was only the weekend– but we were fast learners and had some excellent teachers such as Anuncia Carpio Dueñas and the teachers from the La Laguna School of Hotel and Catering in Baeza, Jaén.

It was at the hospitality school where we first started our lessons in Spanish olive oil and saw a presentation about what olive oil really is and how it’s made. As we listened to our instructor talk about the process, I think that most of us realized we had a lot to learn. For those of you who are also fascinated by the wonders of Spanish olive oil (remember, Spain produces 70% of the entire world’s olive oil!) this recap is for you, and I strongly encourage attending an olive oil tasting in Jaen if you get the chance.

Olives are a Fruit

Olive Fruits Jaén Spain
Olives are a fruit that grow on trees just like peaches or plums.

To understand olive oil we have to remember that olives are fruits and, like many fruits, they grow on trees.  So while apple trees make apples that are used for apple juice, olive trees produce olives that are used for olive juice (the olive oil). Each olive generally contains between 15-25% oil, and the rest of its weight is made up of water (about 50%), skin, pulp, pit, and seed.

When to Pick the Olives

Olive harvest
The men collecting the olives move fast throughout the groves.

The simple answer is never– people don’t pick olives by hand anymore! But there are various ways to collect the olives, and each company starts the recollection process at a different time.

The olive fruits form towards the beginning of a Spanish summer and are bright green and hard. As they mature, they grow in size and begin to change color– first towards a yellow-green, and then light purple, dark purple, and finally black.

Colorful olives in all stages of ripeness
Beautiful olives in different stages of ripeness.

The best time to collect the olives is as soon as they start to change color, which is at the beginning of Fall, October/November in Spain. Yet some producers wait longer, erroneously thinking that the olives will continue to grow and plump up, therefore producing more oil. In reality, the longer they wait the more likely it is that the olives will become bruised or tear, therefore causing fermentation and other defects.

To remove the olives from the trees there are various systems, but the best are machines that shake the trees quite violently, making the olives fall off onto nets that are quickly gathered up and loaded onto trucks.

Collecting Olives in Jaen
A mix of machine and man collect olives in Jaén.
Olives on nets
The olives fall to the nets where they are quickly scooped up.

From Olives to Olive Oil

Olive mill
Collecting the olives for processing.

After removing the olives from the trees they go straight to the almazara, or olive oil factory. There they must be cleaned– leaves and branches are blown off, and they are washed to remove any dust, pollen, dirt, etc.

Read more about table olives here: Spanish olives 101 guide

After cleaning, the olives pass through a mill where they come out as a pulp, then they make their way into a sort of blender that slowly churns the pulp. To separate the olive oil from the pulp most companies use a centrifuge system, which does a pretty good job– note that temperatures during this process never go above 30°C (86°F). The old fashioned “cold-pressed” systems are few and far between nowadays, as they aren’t nearly as efficient. Cold-pressed is more than likely a marketing gimmick if you see it on a bottle (though not always).

sorting olives
Machines that sort out the olives from the leaves and branches.

Time to Taste

Green olive Oil
Bright green olive oil, made only 48 hours prior to tasting!

Here the olive oil is basically finished, 100% juice of the olive. However, this unfiltered oil (the hazy type you’ll see in some shops) does contain water and traces of the olives, and it is this moisture that give it that haze. This oil is perfectly fine for consumption– even desirable– BUT unless the oil will be consumed quickly (within a month or so) it is preferable to filter the olive oil, which will rid it of water and increase its shelf life.

Differences in Quality

Olive oil tasting in Jaen
Different oils lined up for tasting at our class.

An important fact to point out, is that producers use everything to make certain olive oils— not only the good olives. It obviously depends on what they want their end result to be, but for oils that aren’t meant for consumption (and even those that are) they use rotten, dirty, insect infested, fermenting olives!

To break that down… 

Okay, so the olives come in and the good ones go to make the Virgin and Extra Virgin olive oils.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  • Prime quality olives pass through the process above, resulting in a product that is 100% olive juice. It cannot have any defects in its smell or flavor (there is a scale of 1-10 of possible defects that certified olive oil tasters will evaluate). It’s acidity must be lower than 0.8%, meaning that the quality of the fruit was quite high.

Virgin Olive Oil

  • While similar to Extra Virgin, the difference is that with a Virgin olive oil defects are allowed. On the 10 point scale the defects can’t go above 3.5%, and the acidity can’t be more than 2%.

Both virgin and extra virgin olive oils have health properties such as healthy fats and vitamins.

Tasting olive oil Oro Bailen
Tasting the hazy, unfiltered Oro Bailen olive oil, one of Jaén’s best.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the rotten and fermenting olives are also used:

Lampante Olive Oil

  • Lampante comes from the fact that it isn’t edible, and was once used as lamp oil (lamp/lampante). This oil has an acidity of over 2% and has more than 3.5% of defects in its aroma and taste.

You’d think that the story ends there– but I’ll bet a lot of you are consuming lampante oil without knowing it. I know I just said it was inedible– but there is a way around that. The inedible oil goes off to a refinery, where it is refined to a flavorless, clear oil with absolutely no flavor or health properties, just empty calories. This refined oil, is mixed with a wee bit of Virgin olive oil (note, not Extra Virgin) and then they are allowed to call it “Olive Oil” (not Virgin or Extra Virgin, just olive oil).

Olive Oil

  • Refined lampante oil blended with a small percentage of Virgin olive oil.

How do You Know What to Buy?

When you go to a Spanish supermarket two of the normal olive oil choices usually are suave (light) and intenso (intense). This sounds good right? Well, its actually an example of deceptive marketing tactics. The suave olive oil is about 95% refined lampante oil, and 5% virgin olive oil. The intenso is a bit better, a whopping 10% virgin olive oil to 90% refined oil.

So, basically, unless you are buying Virgin or Extra Virgin olive oil, all those health benefits you’ve been reading about for years are nonexistent.

(I was so happy to find this out, as I’d been using suave olive oil for frying for the past 5 years!)

Olive Oil’s Enemies

Olive tree
Innocent enough, but olive oil has some mean enemies.

Our teachers in Jaén stressed that olive oil is not like wine– it does not improve with age! We were urged to think of it like freshly squeezed orange juice, you want to consume it quickly. In reality, olive oil has lots of enemies that will shave precious months off of its shelf life:

  • Oxygen: Every time that olive oil makes contact with air it oxidizes, and eventually will become rancid. Don’t leave the bottle open!
  • Warm Temperatures: Do not keep your olive oil next to the stove! Keep it in a cool, dark place. This can increase its shelf life and slow down oxidation. Someone asked what to do during a hot Andalusian summer, when temperatures soar into the 100°F, and we were advised to keep the olive oil in the refrigerator, despite the fact that it will likely solidify (this will barely affect its quality).
  • Sunlight:You know it’s likely a good olive oil when in comes in a black or opaque bottle. As pretty as see-through glass bottles can be, they allow dangerous light to enter and affect the precious oil. Light, even artificial light, will speed up the oxidation process. Don’t buy olive oil from a shop if it is sitting in a display light– it’ll probably be oxidized.

What’s interesting, is that although there certainly are a lot of companies trying to cheat their consumers by claiming that their olive oil is Extra Virgin when it isn’t, you can’t always assume the worst. Imagine an Extra Virgin olive oil that has been kept in a hot warehouse and then put on display under bright lights. Under these conditions it could change from Extra Virgin to Lampante in only a few months!

A Tough Choice

In the end it isn’t easy for a consumer to choose a quality olive oil. Lax government and EU regulations about labeling makes it tricky business to find the good stuff. My advice is to shop for olive oil somewhere where you trust your vendors– not at the supermarket.

Where I buy olive oil in Madrid

  • Patrimonio Comunal Olivarero: This is a department of agriculture sponsored effort to inform the public about Spain’s olive oils and sell high-quality ones at non-profit prices. Calle de Mejía Lequerica, 1
  • Donde Sanchez at Mercado Antón Martín: Paz, the owner of this small shop, has a great selection of olive oils and wines at great prices. Calle Santa Isabel, 5
  • Café Bar Ferpal: A traditional Spanish deli that we feature on our Madrid Food Tour, with a small (but lovely) selection of olive oils. Calle Arenal, 7

See also: Where to buy olive oil in Granada, Where to buy olive oil in Seville

Where to buy good Spanish olive oil online

  • Amazon: Believe it or not, some of the best brands of Spanish olive oils are available on Amazon. This is the best reference I can give my American friends and family, since many small producers don’t export outside of Europe. If you’re looking for something excellent, try Castillo de Canena or Oro Bailen.
  • La Tienda: This online Spanish food shop has just about everything, and also offers some of the best varieties of Spanish olive oils. Their stock is constantly changing, so take a look at their current offers!

A Connection to the Land

Throughout our trip something that really hit home for me was the intense way that olive oil (especially Extra Virgin) is  connected to the identity of the people in Jaén. Everyone we met seemed to have some connection to it– whether they worked in the industry or simply had an uncle or cousin that did. It was also extremely present in the cuisine, and at fabulous restaurants like Los Sentidos and Zeitum we experienced its versatility in full force.

When I was contacted to participate in this trip I almost didn’t open the email because it looked like spam. But while the Diputación de Jaén may not be the most technologically savvy yet, but I truly thank them and applaud their efforts and trust in working with bloggers– something not too many places in Spain are doing yet.

Check out

Every year the Diputación de Jaén chooses a selection of seven Extra Virgin olive oils that are deemed the creme de la creme of that year. Read about them here (in Spanish).

Do you buy Extra Virgin Spanish olive oil? What’s your favorite brand? 

Comments

    1. Hi Maria, thanks for the link, I’m going to go read that right now! But I totally agree with both points, good olive oil is something you have to pay for. And when we were in Jaén they gave us a bottle at Castillo de Canena and Oro Bailen. This was in October and it is now April– we still have half of one of the bottles left! I though we would rush through it, but it is truly so rich and flavorful that we only need a drop. They have absolutely convinced me that spending 15€+ on a bottle is well worth it (after all, it’s on par with a bottle of wine that’ll be gone in two days). A big jump from the supermarkets 3.50€ 1 liter bottles of “Extra Virgin”, but again, I will never go back!

  1. I’ve been looking forward to this post ever since you wrote about visting Jaén last year! So informative and interesting. I’m a language assistant in the province of Jaén, and like you said, olive agriculture is HUGE to this part of Spain. I’m a little partial to the D.O. Sierra de Segura myself, although living in Úbeda I did get the chance to pick up a bottle of Cerros de Úbeda oil–made right outside town!! Crazy.

    And thanks for the enlightening tidbit about the lampante oil–gross! I had no idea “suave” and “intenso” were gimmicks. I’ll stick to the EVOO from now on.

    Two questions: is it fine to cook with the refined olive oil and save the good stuff for salads and bread-dipping? Is there any hope to find legitimate, unadulterated/unrefined EVOO in the U.S.–what would you recommend?

    Again, love love this post so much. Jaén never gets talked about in the Spain blogosphere and it’s a really lovely place, so thank you!

    1. Hi Trever,

      Thanks for the comment and for watching out for this post– I was a bit slow on sitting down and reading through my notes and pictures! You are so lucky to live in Jaén, I can only imagine how every little bar has an amazing quality olive oil on the table.

      As for your questions, I wouldn’t touch the refined stuff EVER AGAIN. I know that sounds harsh, but why pollute your body? I would cook/fry with a VIRGIN olive oil (not Extra Virgin necessarily because of price/strong flavor), or an Extra Virgin that is suited to the dish if it’s price tag isn’t too much of an issue. Remember, the longer you heat olive oil the more it’ll lose it’s flavor profile, so one way is putting a drop of Virgin oil in the pan, sauteeing or pan frying your dish, then at the very end drizzling Extra Virgin on top. Also, many people think that you can’t fry with olive oil, but it is actually one of the best oils to fry with in the world– WHEN you know the right varietal. Luckily for you (living in Jaén) the Picual is the best to fry with, so a Virgin Picual oil would be ideal. Never fry with an arbequina, which breaks down very quickly and can’t stand high temperatures.

      I know that you can definitely find good olive oils in the states, though I’m sure you have to pay a hefty price (as in Spain, where a truly good Extra Virgin isn’t cheap!). I am currently researching reputable brands in the US market and will hopefully post on that in the future. You can always hop onto Amazon and buy some amazing Spanish brands like Oro Bailen and Castillo de Canena too.

      Good luck and enjoy every moment in Jaén!

  2. Easily the most intriguing topic I’ve come across recently. I use olive oil for A LOT. I use it to moisturize my curly hair, my skin, oil cleanse my face, cooking, lip moisturizer…etc lol to me it’s a magical product. People always ask what i use on my skin and hair thinking I must buy some expensive products but really its just good old EVOO.

    I’m glad you posted this because I had no idea how little an amount of actual olive oil was in Spain’s Olive Oil especially the intensive one. If i hadnt read this i may have used one of these deceptive olive oils and lost my faith in the potency and effectiveness of olive oil. I always use the Extra Virgin Olive Oil here in the states. Guess I’m adding olive oil tasting in Jaen, Spain to my list of hints to do next year, it’s only right considering I use it on a daily basis for multiple purposes :0]

  3. This is seriously brilliant-as an aside, I urge everyone out there who think they do not like olives/olive oil to KEEP trying; I was around 28 years old before I eventually found a taste for olives, and I attribute my father-in-law for my persistence. His words of wisdom were,”If at first you don’t enjoy, try and try again!” Amazingly he was right, I persevered for about 13 years, and then suddenly I tasted an olive that was devine! I’m now addicted but still only to certain ones (obviously high quality!) I buy from The Gift of Oil, dare I say it Italian, but I am now hoping I am not being duped 🙂

    1. Melanie you have to try the brands Castillo de Canena and Oro Bailen (I think you can find both on Amazon). I grew up eating olive oil but still didn’t appreciate it to this degree (I’d never tried such good ones!) until recently.

  4. Recently attended a big Speciality Food Convention with vendors from all over the world. There were plenty of Spanish olive oil vendors there too. Later, I was talking with a guy who has his own business related to olive oil in Canada and he was explaining some tidbits he learned from an olive oil training intensive and I thought of this article. I remember seeing it but clearly didn’t read it well because unfortunately I think I succumbed to buying the “cheaper” olive oils from Mercadona and Carrefour. I wonder how many Spaniards know all that you describe here as like you (and me) and Spanish friends often had the suave or intenso versions.

    Thanks for sharing the info!

  5. Thank you Lauren for such a good text. We need to know what we are really buying and that was a question I made myself many times. Now I am aware of that, many Thanks.

    Alberto.

  6. In Marbella recently we bought 500ml of Los Cerros De Ubeda in a tin for ease of transportation and it is truly gorgeous. Is ther anywhere in Uk we can buy it without having to buy large quantities?
    Thanks

  7. Thanks for your “love letter” to Spanish olive oil. In my experience I’ve found the Spanish overall very discerning and demanding of their olive oil, and as such never had a hard time finding quality DOM varietals/cultivars at Madrid’s supermarkets like SuperSol, Eroski, and El Corté Ingles. (Though very happy to know about the article’s recommendations for when I’m back again.)

    The prevalence of mid- and top-shelf varietals even at everyday markets makes it awful for me to consume most EVOO sold in the US market, and especially knowing that because of Spain’s lesser “brand strength” in America that so much of their oil is exported through Italy to be blended with oil from around the Mediterranean, and then sold as Italian oil in the US. (A great read, BTW, is Mueller’s book “Extra Virginity”.)

    That said, my overall favorite cooking cultivar is the picual and picudo; and arbequina or verdial for a finishing oil. The husband of my host family is from Vilches, Jaén and, like you say, was immensely proud of his favored picual from his hometown, a brand called Jarabancil. When I returned home last Spring, they sent me with 5L of it (in addition to almost that much packed away in my luggage) to last me till I can return again. 🙂

  8. Great article! congratulations Lauren. Another brand that could be interesting to check out is Reinos de Taifas. I have tried their products and they are very good quality. They are from Castro del Rio in Cordoba, and they do Picual, Arbequino, Picudo and Koroneiki varieties https://reinosdetaifas.com/

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