October typically marks the beginning of the olive harvest in Jaen, which accounts for 40% of the Spanish olive oil production. We have been waiting patiently for this moment, hoping for a good harvest. A few days of rain mid-October brought the temperatures down to the low twenties and quickly triggered a frenzy across Andalucia.
This year, we visited Oro Bailen, one of the most renowned Spanish olive oil premium olive oil producers. It is a particularly delicate moment as the fate of a year’s production is decided in this short window of a few weeks. As Jose Galvez, the manager of the farm welcomed us, the level of activity was already high in the mill. Trucks arrived from the grove nearby and immediately cleaned and processes for extraction. The olives are first crushed producing a thick green paste. This transformation phase takes place low temperatures in order to preserve the highest quality and taste. The paste is then subject to a kneading and finally a centrifugation process in order to separate the oil from the water. The modern mill resembles a laboratory. It combines modern technology, which is viewed as the Ferrari of the olive oil production with a very clean and efficient working environment. It is very different from the old images of stone grinding. Even the concept of pressing which continues to be used, no longer corresponds to the reality of today’s olive oil production.
Producing high quality extra virgin olive oil is a highly scientific and technical process. In essence, it aims to capture the peak in quality and taste of a fresh fruit juice. Years of experience in fine tuning the machines parameters plays a key role in the quality of the oil. An equal important factor is the work in the fields. As we drove to the nearby grove, we finally saw the full picture of the process. We also understood the reason for the tension in the team. A team of around 10 people were laying the nets around the picual trees, a few seconds later a tractor with trunk shaking device arrived. Within 30 seconds, most of the olives fell into the net. The farmers used their sticks to remove some additional olives and the operation was finished. The whole team rushed to the next tree. This is where the importance of speed becomes clear. Good olive oil producers process their olives within the day of harvest. Excellent producers such as Oro Bailen manage to complete these steps within 2 hours. The importance of speed is related to the high fragility of the olives following the harvest. Any damage needs to be avoided by transporting the olives in small quantities and minimising exposure to heat and air before the crushing.
The military efficiency of the harvesting process follows an optimised path for which every gesture is planned and calculated. Jose explains that his team is trained to preserve the trees in the best possible condition for the next harvest. It is about protecting the branches which produce the next olives. Interestingly, as we walk through the fields, we see discrete signs of the irrigation system with some pipe connectors appearing out of the soil. The whole irrigation system has been buried at around one metre of depth to be as close as possible to the roots of the tree. This technique has also the advantage of avoiding evaporation which can easily consume all the water as summer temperature often exceeds 40 degrees Celsius in Andalucía. Water management is an art in the production of olive oils. One of the most common mistakes is over-irrigation which can adversely affect the quality and taste of the oil.
As we head back to the mill, the fresh oil is flowing into the stainless steel tank. Its colour is light green and its herbal and fruity aromas are very intense. They remind of green banana, green tomatoes and white almonds. As we taste the 2017/2018 new Reserva Familiar Picual, we immediately recognise a Grand Cru. It is very elegant and balanced oil. We discover its complexity progressively. First, it opens up with a very smooth and sweet taste. Its character then starts to change bringing out a delicious medium spicy note. It is definitely a very fruity oil which we expect to be as popular if not more than last year’s since it has lost some of its bitterness.
Before arriving into stores, the oil will go through a filtering process. We view this step as a critical one for high quality olive oils as it contributes to the preservation of the oil. We are looking for oils which are capable of keeping their extraordinary profile as long as possible. Essentially, the goal is to transmit the “fresh from the mill” taste to the final consumers.
Many thanks to Jose Galvez and Edurne Rubio for their hospitality and congratulations for an excellent harvest.