Business

Monterosa Looks to the Future with Eye on the Past

Deep in the quiet sun-scorched hills surrounding the town of Montcarapacho, Monterosa’s philosophy has led it more than once to make the most of the unexpected.

Eduardo Martins and José Dâmaso
Jul. 26, 2017
By Anne Calcagno
Eduardo Martins and José Dâmaso

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Long before Portugal’s Algarve was a tourist des­ti­na­tion, deep in the quiet sun-scorched hills sur­round­ing the town of Mont­cara­pa­cho, olive orchards thrived. Ancient Romans pressed their oil right here, leav­ing mill­stones, ruins, and thou­sand-year-plus olive trees behind.

We have invested so much time and patience in this small busi­ness, for us it’s an act of love to be shared.- António Duarte, Viveiros Mon­terosa

For Viveiros Mon­terosa, EVOO pro­duc­tion is much younger; mak­ing it the equiv­a­lent of a high school stand­out in an ancient sport. Since their first ten­ta­tive offi­cial EVOO test­ing in 2009, Mon­terosa has risen to repeat Gold Awards four years in a row at the New York Inter­na­tional Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion, com­pet­ing with 910 par­tic­i­pants from 27 coun­tries. We’re proud that,” sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive António Duarte informs me, as we amble through their olive orchards.

Ele­gant palm trees line the entrance road lead­ing to the clay-color home where com­pany founder Detlev Von Rosen lived and worked; the brand name Mon­terosa is a Por­tuguese translit­er­a­tion of his sur­name. Twenty yards away, the ruins of an ancient Roman olive mill have been taste­fully inte­grated into the cur­rent oper­a­tions, an apt visual affir­ma­tion of Monterosa’s goal to retain the ancient tra­di­tion of mak­ing olive (that) has almost been lost.”

On our walk, Duarte brings up the company’s uti­liza­tion of Roman Sen­a­tor Mar­cus Cato’s man­ual on farm­ing, De Agri Cul­tura; he cal­i­brated the ideal spac­ing between olive trees, five by seven meters apart, so they do not com­pete for water. And just so, we’ve set them.” Ancient wis­dom is plainly poised as Monterosa’s foun­da­tion.

António Duarte

The past year has been bit­ter­sweet for Mon­terosa. EVOO pro­duc­tion met excep­tion­ally high-qual­ity rat­ings, in com­pe­ti­tions, while tast­ing tours and vis­its to Mon­terosa olive grove and press reached a record 2,500 vis­i­tors. And Detlev Von Rosen died.
See more: Detlev Von Rosen, Portugal’s Cel­e­brated Pro­ducer, Dies
His house sits empty, but his legacy thrives on loca­tion in the hands of long time col­lab­o­ra­tors and Mon­terosa share­hold­ers CEO Eduardo Mar­tins and CFO José Dâmaso, and newer asso­ciate Duarte.

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From the pave stoned ter­race over­look­ing the olive groves, Mar­tins invokes Monterosa’s hopes for the future. Of course, we’re look­ing to expand pro­duc­tion, as our trees con­tinue matur­ing. Another essen­tial value for us is to show what it is to farm, broad­en­ing the pic­ture to include our mul­ti­ple hor­ti­cul­tural endeav­ors. What if in this beau­ti­ful spot we offered wine, tea, fresh lemon juice, and maybe select overnights stays in the house?” he mused.

Orchard view at Monterosa

Crit­i­cal, for us, though, is avoid­ing aggres­sive touris­tic pro­mo­tion. You see, we have invested so much time and patience in this small busi­ness, for us it’s an act of love to be shared.” We mean­der past red clay hillocks dot­ted with scented thyme, they hold back ero­sion; a much bet­ter alter­na­tive to grass.” He and Dâmaso escort me through lush land­scap­ing and exotic tree species, such as a Kenyan Ter­mi­na­lia, atyp­i­cal of most olive farms. We started this busi­ness in orna­men­tal plants, and it remains core.” Mon­terosa does not live by olive trees alone.

In De Agri Cul­tura, Cato wrote: “… it is from the farm­ing class that the bravest men and the stur­di­est sol­diers come, their call­ing is most highly respected, their liveli­hood is most assured.” But the stars do not always align even for the most ardent farm­ers.

In 1997 and 1998, seri­ous drought made Monterosa’s liveli­hood any­thing but assured. Where olive orchards now stand, with­er­ing orange groves, in par­tic­u­lar, were deplet­ing irri­ga­tion wells. Mar­tins recounts, We almost ran out of water. Then we did the num­bers, real­iz­ing it took 1,000 glasses of water to pro­duce one glass of orange juice. This was unsus­tain­able.”

Eduardo Martins and José Dâmaso

This twist of fate, iron­i­cally, jump-started a turn­around that, sev­en­teen years later, is Monterosa’s prize-win­ning EVOO. Behind its pure smooth taste, swirls the back story of col­lapse, risk, rein­ven­tion, and serendip­ity.

We imme­di­ately explored fruit cul­ti­vars native to our region cli­mat­i­cally and geo­log­i­cally so sim­i­lar to Andalu­cia: carob, almond, fig, olive. We gam­bled that if we couldn’t pro­duce good olive oil, at least we had an orna­men­tal olive tree to sell. Thing is, we knew a lot about trees, but a lot less about olive oil pro­duc­tion.”

Over the fol­low­ing decade, the Mon­terosa team col­lab­o­rated step-by-step with the lab­o­ra­to­ries of olive oil spe­cial­ist Jose’ Gou­veia, from ISA (Insti­tuto Supe­rior de Agrono­mia). In 2009, he rec­om­mended they com­pete in an offi­cial EVOO judg­ing. Fate mor­phed, for­tu­itously net­ting Mon­terosa its first sil­ver award.

Mon­terosa con­tin­ues to be unwa­ver­ing in its ded­i­ca­tion to an envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able inte­grated sys­tem that uses no chem­i­cal or syn­thetic prod­ucts for pest con­trol, strives for the low­est pos­si­ble car­bon foot­print, and fash­ions com­post from its own recy­cled pulp, grass clip­pings, and finely shred­ded prun­ings.

Inspecting the compost at Viveiros Monterosa

In late spring/early sum­mer, one aspect of the inte­grated sys­tem is par­tic­u­larly vis­i­ble; the olive trees are coated a ghostly white. Exu­ber­antly, Mar­tins explains: Our team observed that olive trees sit­u­ated along the walls got coated with road dust, and were ignored by the fruit flies. Upon con­fer­ring with agri­cul­tural spe­cial­ist Paul Vossen, we bor­rowed a pest con­trol method observed on a small farm in Lebanon. We coated the trees by spray­ing Kaolin mixed with water. This nat­u­rally occur­ring clay min­eral is com­pletely neu­tral to the olive tree and the envi­ron­ment. But its PH burns the feet of the destruc­tive olive fruit fly (Bac­tro­cera oleae), so that it does not fix on the olives to deposit its eggs. Fur­ther­more, the fruit fly seeks green olives,” and the clay masks the color.

In the late sum­mer into early fall Mon­terosa fur­ther calls upon its atten­tive empir­i­cal method to eval­u­ate har­vest­ing its five olive vari­etals. We pick accord­ing to the olives’ sched­ule. The trees are in charge, not us.” Duarte explains. We con­stantly observe and test, seek­ing the moment of the ideal max­i­mum con­cen­tra­tion of nutri­ents. Some days we don’t pick, other days we work four­teen hours.”

All har­vest­ing is done man­u­ally, We don’t hit the trees with a stick to avoid wound­ing either trees or olives. We pick from the bot­tom up as you would an apple tree. We use a tool like a comb along the branches and shake small sec­tions gen­tly with a small elec­tric pole. A sec­ond team sifts through the olives, remov­ing any dam­aged ones.” Duarte reit­er­ates, Our basic steps for pro­duc­tion are much the same as the Roman ones.” Time and labor-inten­sive meth­ods.

Monterosa’s phi­los­o­phy has led it more than once to make the most of the unex­pected. Dâmaso recounts how, A few years ago, tourists began sim­ply wan­der­ing in, ask­ing to visit, and we tried to accom­mo­date them. We wanted them to feel con­fi­dent about how we grow some­thing that tastes so good and to illu­mi­nate the require­ments for such pro­duc­tion. It wasn’t right to expect peo­ple to spend good money, with­out sam­pling. After all, eighty per­cent of what we pro­duce is for export.” And so their olive grove tours and tast­ings were born.

A tour of Monterosa

Mon­terosa remains open at no cost all year to vis­i­tors though, being mind­ful that this is a work­ing farm, advance reser­va­tions are rec­om­mended. Duarte shows off seri­ously ancient olive trees, encour­ages fondling the sweetly scented com­post, and notes col­leagues busy remov­ing for­eign mat­ter, but­tress­ing the troughs, mow­ing grass, and check­ing irri­ga­tion lines.

Guests then repair to the cool spot­less mill. It’s a show­room, tast­ing area, and pro­cess­ing cen­ter in one. Bright orange and red kil­ims and tra­di­tional (yes, think Roman-style) woven oil-press­ing flats adorn the walls. Top­pled Roman mill­stones absorb the sun out­side.

Duarte gives a thor­ough expla­na­tion of the mechan­i­cal cold press sys­tem, fol­lowed by a triple oil tast­ing for vis­i­tors, each of which inspires Duarte to wax enthu­si­as­ti­cally with culi­nary rec­om­men­da­tions. The oil fla­vors range from soft to medium to intense. After all, the EVOO cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process also requires a sen­so­r­ial analy­sis,” cue­ing our on-site chance to pre­tend to be a panel of judges.

The Mon­terosa team’s envi­ron­men­tally con­scious process raises the last ques­tion. Are you not organic?” Mar­tins pauses thought­fully, We want to reach that level but are not quite there yet. First, we have to pro­tect the trees, learn all there is to know and pro­ceed most care­fully.” Their modus operandi hasn’t fal­tered to date.

If you can’t get to Por­tu­gal, you can order from the Mon­terosa web­site.



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