By Alberto Matos
Via Olivarama | Madrid
David Marcos Merchán
Agricultural Engineer and Sales Director of Viñedo y Olivar de Viveros Provedo
We have allowed the top chefs become the spokespeople of the entire food chain, when the real protagonists of our table are actually the farmers
We began to put the content of this interview together around the middle of last March, over a pleasant meal in El Bohío, the restaurant that the TV personality Pepe Rodríguez manages in the Toledo town of Illescas. We were interested in getting David’s opinion of issues as thorny as the types of fat used by the food industry, the use of olive oil in restaurant kitchens, the knowledge level of consumers when it comes to this product or the future law on non-refillable bottle tops. It’s not that the menu we sampled inspired any of this. On the contrary. It couldn’t have been more exquisite. We simply knew that David has no qualms about expressing his opinion on any subject and we didn’t want to miss our chance.
Our friendship with David came about almost by coincidence. Before we knew him at all, we requested the use of some of the photos published on his website to illustrate one of our first reports. After verifying our healthy intentions, not only did he end up giving them to us free of charge, but he also began to collaborate with us, taking over the “From the Tree to the Table” section. Since then, his texts have been among the most read and appreciated by our national and international readers.
At present, this agricultural engineer is almost a member of our team. He is always willing to lend a hand, he’s a good listener and he is an endless source of knowledge and good advice. Thanks for always being there.
Olive oil has formed part of our culture since time immemorial. Yet, this does not mean that we know everything there is to know about it, or do we?
In reality, we started to discover its properties recently. To be more exact, what we are doing now is re-discovering them, as in ancient times olive oil was already considered a healthy product.
In my opinion, it is not a question of how much we know about olive oil, but rather how many people receive this information, whether they live in countries with an olive production tradition like our own, or whether they live in other places where this product is somewhat more exotic.
In your opinion, what information should reach the consumers?
The consumer is unfamiliar with anything he has not learned, either because he has not received the information or because he has not shown any interest in it.
Olive oil is a heart-healthy fat which prevents numerous diseases and regulates cholesterol like no other is capable of doing so. It is perfect as a foodstuff in every sense.
These qualities, bit by bit, are starting to be acknowledged the world over. Yet, the consumer is also exposed to a bombardment of constant deceptive information, as occurs with the advertising of certain “healthy” margarines which, in reality, are made of unhealthy vegetal fats. There are even those who would have us believe that the soy in some yoghurts has been scientifically proven to help lower cholesterol. This is only a half-truth –or a half-lie, depending on how you look at it-, because while it is true that this legume contributes to slightly lowering bad cholesterol, it also lowers the good cholesterol. And, as if that weren’t enough, the previous levels are recovered after digestion.
In this sense, the olive juice is unique and unsurpassable among all foodstuffs.
Tell us a bit more about that, what do you think of the type of vegetal fats the food industry uses to formulate its processed products?
I find it regrettable that they are used, that the consumer has allowed it to happen and that the industry has taken advantage.
In their obsession with buying whatever is cheapest, consumers have unwittingly accepted that products incorporate fats which are under no circumstance healthy for the organism. The problem is that, at this stage, it’s hard to choose and avoid certain products. Do the test yourself. Try to buy biscuits, mayonnaise or a ready-cooked meal that does not contain “vegetal fat”. This expression hides coconut oil or palm oil, or many others, which are so saturated that they are pure lard.
We innocently believe that vegetal fats refer to sunflower oil which, after all, is not harmful. But the truth is very different. The industry has found a way of cheapening its products by using these exotic fats, that come from single crops that destroy the biodiversity of tropical zones, seduce the consumer with their prices and, at the same time, make us eat junk food without even knowing it.
This is why it is increasingly important to increase our food culture, because this allows us to know what we’re eating and helps us choose.
The quality of the oils offered by restaurants and other hostelry establishments doesn’t reach the minimal levels desired either. This is why the Ministry for Agriculture recently presented a draft bill according to which, from next January 1st, the horeca channel will be obliged to offer its oils in non-refillable containers. Do you think this measure will suffice to guarantee the quality of the table oils? Do you consider it fair?
Although I don’t think it’s bad, I am not a staunch defender of this measure, because I don’t think it guarantees the quality of the oils even if these are olive oils. Sometimes oils labelled as extra virgins do not actually fall into this category. On the contrary, at times since they present detectable faults they are simply virgin oils or, even worse, lampante oils.
And I am not talking about just a few anecdotic cases, this happens far more often than the sector is willing to admit.
This is why I think the measure in question will just prevent other types of oils from being offered, apart from the olive oil in bars and restaurants. A fact which, on the other hand, is not currently typical.
That’s from the consumer’s point of view, but what consequences will this new law have for hoteliers and restaurateurs? And for producers?
To use a somewhat exaggerated comparison, if a rowing boat doesn’t move forward the solution does not lie in whipping the slaves more, but rather in humanising their work.
The hostelry sector needs more information and less censure, although that does not exempt it from meeting certain controls and complying with certain prohibitions that place food safety at risk.
In my case, I am more worried about the oil I don’t see, the oil used in the kitchen. Especially, in fried foods for which the cheapest fats tend to be used and, if analysed, they would make all of our hair stand on end.
For its part, this law obliges producers to pack in smaller formats and some of them will see it as an added cost rather than an opportunity to differentiate themselves.
What do you mean when you say the oils used for fried dishes? What might we find in the frying pans of these types of establishment?
Look, in spite of the fact that what I’m going to say may have consequences, it is important to know that a vegetal fat that is not olive oil breaks down from a certain temperature on. And that depending on the hours of frying time it is subjected to, it will generate a bigger or smaller concentration of benzopyrenes, a cancerous substance in constant contact with the foods that nobody has bothered to measure or control.
I heard this from a renowned chemist from the olive oil sector a few years ago and even back then it really worried me. By unleashing a war between non-refillable containers and oil cruets what we are doing is distracting the attention from the real problem. Imagine the amount of olive oil that would be consumed in the hostelry sector if it were regulated in the kitchens.
Have you noticed any difference in the way this product is dealt with by the more modest establishments and those others that are known for their chef’s cooking?
A modest establishment, offering set menus, can provide delights for the senses and, at the same time, raise the prestige of the olive oil by knowing how to use it correctly. On one occasion, in a tapas bar in Madrid in the Oporto neighbourhood, they brought me a plate of Italian cheese dressed with an extra virgin coupage of Cornicabra and Arbequina. The best part was that the waiter knew the meaning of each one of the words giving their name to the dish. A laudable fact.
Other times, in top class restaurants I’ve been offered an excellent extra virgin from the region the owner was from, even though the very same couldn’t tell me what olive varietal was cultivated in his homeland.
So I believe there’s a bit of everything, out there, it takes all sorts.
In recent years, Spain has become a world gastronomic benchmark. Do you think the major chefs play their role correctly as prescribers of this product?
In general, I think that these professionals are still in the learning stage. For many of them, glass packaging is a recent novelty. Not to mention having to speak about varietals, geographic areas or organoleptic profiles. Yet, I do believe that they are learning very quickly.
Perhaps this is an underlying problem, beyond the oils. In the food world, we have allowed the top chefs to become the spokespeople of an entire chain. And so they talk to you, for instance, about an artichoke without really knowing whether they are cooking a seedhead or a fruit.
The real protagonists of our table are the farmers. The major chefs might understand about textures, combinations, presentations…, but many of them don’t know anything about the land, as they have only ever visited a vegetable patch as tourists.
In your opinion, apart from those already mentioned, what other types of controls should oils be subjected to? In this sense, could we say that there is fraud in Spain?
In my opinion, frauds relating to olive oil are minor, although that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. The mix of oils is closely monitored, meaning there are no adulterations. This is one thing the consumer should feel completely reassured about.
Another thing is that, like I said before, some packaged oils like extra virgins may simply be virgins. A situation which may perfectly well be motivated by poor storage conditions in the commercial circuit, for instance. How often have we bought a white wine that has lost all of its aromas or, even is rancid when it gets to our table? Nobody makes a fuss about that.
Another serious issue is that of the deodorized oils which, for the moment, can only be detected by the tasting panels. This phenomenon is very closely related to the excessive number of Arbequina plantations, as this is a varietal that oxidizes very easily, inducing this type of fraudulent practice.
And what are the deodorised oils?
They are lampante oils which are subjected to a water vapour based process that eliminates all traces of unpleasant flavours or smells. The result is a flat oil from an organoleptic point of view. To be able to sell it, they add a portion of extra virgin that contributes aromas.
It is sometimes, fraudulently, called extra virgin even though it isn’t. It is difficult to detect because it does not leave any chemical traces. Fortunately, it does not pose any health risk, meaning the fraud is limited to the labelling.
In spite of everything, in our country there are many producers who do everything by the book and who raise the quality of our oils to unprecedented levels. What differentiates them from others who do not do things the way they should?
Well, it’s like everything in life, the difference lies in a love of what they do and a will to improve and progress. The competitiveness between the companies also works in favour of the production of an excellent product which, on the one hand means it sells better and, on the other, benefits the consumer for obvious reasons.
Finally, lately there has been much talk of integration to improve sales, but I believe in small producers who have more time to pamper their product and improve it, and less opportunities to camouflage their errors.
In light of what we have said above, do you believe the price difference between the quality oils and the mediocre oils is justified? What is it that pushes up the price of the product? What should be the right price?
At present, there is very little price difference between the good oils and the mediocre oils, to the extent that this difference appears to be based solely on the packaging or presentation cost.
Nonetheless, what truly increases the product price is the handling of small volumes during the elaboration, storage and packaging processes. Logically, those producers who handle large volumes cannot always obtain maximum quality, but rather they also produce lower quantities and, even mediocre oils. It doesn’t matter. Each quality must have a corresponding price and we should never forget that that price is based on a pact between what one side wants to offer and the other side wants to receive.
Prices can never be fair or unfair, contrary to what we are always hearing. What is fair, is that the information we offer about a product should be true information.
Up close and personal
An extra virgin: Coupage of Picudo and Hojiblanca.
An olive varietal: Manzanilla Cacereña.
An olive grove landscape: Arribes del Duero.
A restaurant that pays particular attention to its olive oil: Casa do Aceite, Lobios (Ourense).
A dish with olive oil: Salmorejo, mmmmm!
A wish for olive oil: For every human being on the planet to try it.
Born in Madrid on October 30, 1971, he graduated in Agricultural Engineering from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) in 1995. After working in the ornamental sector for a few years, in 1998 he moved from Madrid to Seville to work in an agro-chemical company, developing products for the Andalusian olive grove. Later on, he lived in Córdoba, Toledo, Alcázar de San Juan (Ciudad Real), Abarán (Murcia) and, once again, Madrid.
In 2002, he changed direction and started to work as sales director in vine and olive plants for Viveros Provedo, a company based in La Rioja with which he continues to collaborate even today. This position has allowed him to travel constantly throughout all the wine and olive producing areas of our country, while also getting to know both sectors in depth.
With almost two million kilometres through the roads and by-roads of Spain at his back, he feels that the professionalism and experience of the agricultural engineers are not always acknowledged by society.
Married with one daughter, his second home is in Tunisia. He admits to being in love with Spain, particularly after discovering its geography village by village, with its peoples and traditions.