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
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
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.
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.
From Olives to Olive Oil
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).
Time to Taste
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
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.
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).
- 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
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
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! Note that they only ship to the US.
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.
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?