In Jaén, ‘Conquering Palates’ to Get a Fair Price for Olive Oil
Admired for its production potential, questions have also been traditionally raised about the quality of the Jaén region’s oils. This reputation, which was perhaps deserved in the past, is completely unjustified nowadays.
Proof of this lies in the growing number of awards which, year after year, all over the world, distinguish the excellence of its brands.
The enormous efforts made by its olive and oil producing industry in recent years have contributed to this success, raising quality to the maximum, as has the drive provided by the Jaén County Council.
Since his election as president of the Jaén County Council in June of 2011, we had only coincided with him at a small number of events.
We were perfectly familiar with the vehemence of Felipe López, his predecessor in the position, in defending the interests of the olive tree and the oil from his land. However, we hadn’t had a chance for a good chat with Francisco Reyes yet. And so, with the excuse of the misfortunate legislation the EU was supposed to set in motion in January 2014, to oblige the HORECA channel to replace the traditional oil cruets with non-refillable and labelled packages, we decided to interview him.
Just like the rest of us, in the course of his life Francisco Reyes has also come across the controversial oil cruets in numerous bars and restaurants throughout our country. A practice which, in his eyes, “undermines the prestige of quality oils by using recipients that do not do them justice.”
This is why, even before the announcement of the new European measure, the Jaén County Council had already sponsored a campaign driven by the small farmers association, Unión de Pequeños Agricultores de Andalucía, among various restaurants in Jaén in an attempt to have them offer their oils solely in non-refillable and labelled packagings.
In a surprising coincidence, just a few days after answering our questions, the European Union decided to block what, according to Francisco Reyes, would have been a response to a “series of requests and demands from the sector which, undoubtedly, would be positive for the olive oil producers.”
We haven’t spoken to the president of the Jaén County Council again since the European Union made this decision, however something tells us that he can’t be very happy about it.
It is no wonder that everyone identifies Jaén with olive oil, as it is the main production region not just in Spain but in the oil producing world. How is its relevance reflected in the characteristics that define the province?
The image of Jaén, which is redolent of olive oil, is largely associated with its olive groves. Suffice to journey just a little into our territory to realise that the olive, that thousand-year old tree so closely associated with the Mediterranean, dominates practically the entire countryside. Indeed, over 60 million olive trees define the countryside and mountains of Jaén, from north to south and east to west of the province. Its omnipresence determines our economy, in which the olive sector represents over 15% of our Gross Domestic Product, we produce 28% of the world’s olive oil and 43% of Spain’s. Data that translates into returns of around 1 billion euros. In our province, which has over 600,000 hectares of land planted with olives trees, around 108,000 people are directly linked to this sector through the 66,000 registered farms, on which an average of 700,000 tonnes of olives are produced, which are pressed in over 300 mills. And the predominant varietal is the Picual, representing 95% of the total. From this olive, one of the best oils in the world is extracted, both in terms of flavour and in health benefits, as it is one of the oils with the highest oleic acid content.
In the light of these figures, it is logical to assume that olive oil exerts an enormous influence on the everyday life of the people from Jaén. How does it specifically impact the social and cultural environment of the province?
That’s certainly true, particularly in the small and medium-sized towns and villages, which constitute a majority in the province of Jaén. Here, the agricultural labour, the harvest and the cultivation of this tree mark the lives of its inhabitants. Although in recent years, a successful attempt has been made to diversify the productive activity in Jaén, there is no doubt that oil production is still one of our most relevant sectors, not just from an economic point of view, but also in terms of culture as, per se, it is a way of life with roots that date far back in time, which we have summarised in the term Olive Culture.
Has the current economic situation affected the olive oil industry in Jaén? In what way?
There is no question that the difficulties Spanish society is experiencing mean that all sectors, including olive oil, are suffering. But the small harvest of the last year has temporarily overshadowed the main problem we have been facing recently: the low prices that even fall below the profitability threshold. Since there is a smaller supply, the price has increased, but this year’s campaign will be less profitable for the oil producers and, above all, has led to the loss of over 6 million days of work, meaning this is a particularly tough situation for the thousands of Jaén families whose income depends directly on agriculture and for whom we at the Council have set up an Employment Plan with a budget of 7 million euro to partially relieve this loss of wages.
From a purely physical plane, which peculiarities make up the Jaén olive landscape?
Like I said before, the olive grove is present wherever you look in this province, to the extent that we always say it’s our fifth nature reserve. It is a humanized wood that is one-of-a-kind in the world, offering unique landscapes and orography, marked by endless rows of olive trees that spread throughout the plains, the mountains, close to the villages, the cities and even the most remote and hidden nooks and crannies.
Some claim that the traditional olive groves, particularly those blanketing the mountain slopes, are not very profitable or competitive if compared to those cultivated intensively or super-intensively. Do you share this opinion?
I think that rather than an opinion, this is a reality. The difficulties involved in harvesting these mountainous groves, or installing a watering system or simply doing the various agricultural tasks necessary, constitute an obstacle that ultimately affects the profit the farmer extracts from the olive tree in comparison to the flat stretches of farmland in which cultivation can be more intensive. This is why it is obvious that they are less profitable, but that should not make us forget the important social and economic function they fulfil in many of our municipalities, where they represent one of the main sources of income, which is why we always defend the need to preserve this mountain grove, because it contributes to maintaining the population in rural areas and because it is also important in terms of the environmental benefits it generates.
A leader in terms of quantity, the province of Jaén also stands out for the increasingly-higher quality of its oils. What characteristics define them? How is the excellence of these oils certified?
In Jaén, as I mentioned before, the Picual olive is the most commonly cultivated as it takes up approximately 95% of the olive-producing surface area, although in the area of Cazorla, the Royal varietal is also common. Its main characteristics reside in its aroma, which tends to be described as fruity, fresh and fragrant, while a slight bitterness predominates its flavour, with an intense taste of the actual olive itself, that leaves an exquisite and prolonged aftertaste. It is the olive type that is most resistant to oxidation, due to its higher polyphenol content. This guarantees its stability and preservation for a long period of time, one of the most important advantages of the Picual varietal, without neglecting the stronger presence of the healthy oleic acid. To guarantee its excellent quality, we boast some of the oldest Designations of Origin in Spain, the Sierra de Segura and also the Sierra de Cazorla. The Council works with these to raise awareness of the excellent oils produced in the province of Jaén.
Jaén is known as a major producer of bulk oils. What percentage of the total production is made for this market? What types of oils are sold in this way? What is the current trend?
The estimates indicate that around 80% of the oil produced is sold in bulk, mainly to the export market. In general, the olive oils exported tend to be the lower quality oils because normally a far higher percentage of extra virgin olive oils are packaged. The current, and also desirable, trend is for the oils produced to be of an increasingly high quality, and for both the packaging and the sale to take place directly at origin, because this will generate more added value, a higher profit for the producers and, as a result of this, more jobs will be created in the sector. For this to happen, it is also essential for us to continue to promote this product throughout the world, emphasising the benefits it offers to human health and its multiple uses in gastronomy, because the more palates we conquer, the easier it will be to receive a fair price for the oil that should at the very least cover the farmers’ production costs.
You are a teacher by profession and so you must at some point, even if only in your own mind, have assessed the knowledge level of the children –and those who are not so much children- from your province about olive oil. In your opinion, what is their view of this product so inherent to them? Is this vision real?
In the province of Jaén at least, the olive oil knowledge level is more complete than in other areas of Spain. Even so, and in general terms, I believe the term used to define the quality of the oils makes it overly difficult to distinguish between the best and the not so good. Olive oil is considered a top quality product, with infinite uses in the kitchen, an excellent flavour and it is more and more acknowledged as a healthy and essential foodstuff of the Mediterranean Diet. This is made increasingly clear by the growing number of scientific studies, the latest of which, called Predimed, clearly shows that this type of diet, supplemented with olive oil, reduces the chance of suffering a cardiovascular disease by 30%. This is the view of olive oil that we at the Council are intent on promoting among various groups, such as housewives, school children, restaurateurs, distributors … all with a view to conquering more and more cuisines around the world.
Up close and personal:
An extra virgin: Oro de Cánava
An olive varietal: Picual
An olive grove landscape: The valley of the river Cuadros and the mountains of Sierra Mágina.
A restaurant that takes special interest in olive oil: Juanito, in Baeza.
A dish with olive oil: French fries with eggs.
A wish for olive oil: For the producers to receive a fair price.
Francisco Reyes Martínez
Born in the Jaén town of Bedmar, on July 10 in 1962. Although a teacher by profession, politics began to make a decisive mark on his life in 1987, the year in which he was elected councilor in his native municipality. One year later, he became mayor, a position he held until 1995.
Between 1993 and 2000, he was also regional councilor, a position he combined with that of vice-president of this same institution for a while, and was also responsible for local Tourism and Development.
Almost at the same time, in 1996 he went on to take up the role of organisation secretary of the Provincial Government of the PSOE party in Jaén. For another four years, he also combined this function with that of secretary general of the Local Branch of this political party in Bedmar.
In the year 2000, he was appointed regional representative of the Andalusian government in Jaén, a position he occupied until the year 2008, when he was elected national councilor.
In 2004, he began his role as vice secretary general of the PSOE in Jaén, until he gave up this facet to become secretary general of his political party in Jaén. At present, he combines this position with that of PSOE representative for the legal jurisdiction of Jaén.
Since June 24 2011, Francisco Reyes Martínez has also been the president of the Jaén County Council.
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This article was last updated November 29, 2014 - 8:02 PM (GMT-5)