Finding Balance in a Changing Sector Yields Success for Portuguese Exporter

Quality serves as Est. Manuel Silva Torrado’s north star as the company navigates export markets and the country’s rapidly changing sector.

Manuel Norte Santo (third from the left) and the rest of the team behind Est. Manuel Silva Torrado
By Daniel Dawson
Nov. 20, 2023 19:26 UTC
Manuel Norte Santo (third from the left) and the rest of the team behind Est. Manuel Silva Torrado

Producing and export­ing award-win­ning extra vir­gin olive oil in Portugal is a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act, accord­ing to Manuel Norte Santo, an export man­ager of Establecimiento Manuel Silva Torrado.

The com­pany started in 1878 when Manuel da Silva Torrado, a mer­chant from Castelo Branco, about 185 kilo­me­ters north­east of Lisbon, went to the cap­i­tal to sell olive oil in the city’s mar­kets.

We can­not ignore the future, and if we do not plant at high-den­sity and super-high den­sity, with the lack of human resources we have in Portugal, we don’t have a future in the olive oil sec­tor.- Manuel Norte Santo, export man­ager, Est. Manuel Silva Torrado

Since then, the com­pany has become a sig­nif­i­cant pro­ducer and exporter with 200 hectares of olive groves, two mills in Alentejo, the coun­try’s largest olive-grow­ing region, and a global pres­ence in super­mar­kets and restau­rants.

As the com­pany has evolved, so has the Portuguese olive oil indus­try. The com­bi­na­tion of cap­i­tal flight from Spain dur­ing the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis and the con­struc­tion of the Alqueva dam in Alentejo trans­formed the olive-grow­ing land­scape.

See Also:Porducer Profiles

Norte Santo, whose fam­ily owns and runs the com­pany, became one of two export man­agers seven years ago and has seen the sec­tor’s evo­lu­tion first­hand.

I expe­ri­enced the big boom of Portuguese pro­duc­tion,” he told Olive Oil Times. Because of the Alqueva dam, many play­ers came to Portugal and invested in super-inten­sive [super-high-den­sity] olive groves.”

Historically, Portugal was com­posed of tra­di­tional olive groves. In the five years lead­ing up to the cri­sis, the coun­try pro­duced an aver­age of 37,000 tons of olive oil each year.

Since then, annual olive oil pro­duc­tion has tripled as many high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity farms entered pro­duc­tion. Portugal pro­duced a record-high 206,200 tons of olive oil in the 2021/22 crop year, and Norte Santo expects the coun­try to pro­duce 150,000 tons in 2023/24.

Est. Manuel Silva Torrado has two inten­sive groves with Arbequina, Galega, Hojiblanca and Picual olives. A third super-inten­sive grove was recently planted solely with Arbequina and is not yet pro­duc­ing but will even­tu­ally account for about 30 per­cent of the company’s yield.

We also buy a lot of olives from dif­fer­ent pro­duc­ers to have the oppor­tu­nity to have dif­fer­ent vari­eties, and then we can make dif­fer­ent batches and exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent blends of olive oils,” Norte Santo said.

The com­pany buys Galega olives for the company’s mill in north­ern Alentejo. Norte Santo esti­mates that these make up about 80 per­cent of pro­duc­tion at that mill. They also buy the tra­di­tional Portuguese vari­eties of Cobrançosa, Cordovil and Azeiteira, and Arbequina and Picual, the two most-grown vari­eties world­wide.

But we mostly buy Portuguese vari­eties,” Norte Santo said. We must guar­an­tee a cer­tain pro­file to our olive oils so they carry a Portuguese tra­di­tion and fla­vor.”


Norte Santo came to the company with a mandate to expand its export markets in East Asia.

When he joined the com­pany in 2016, Norte Santo was man­dated to expand exports beyond the tra­di­tional mar­kets of Brazil, Europe and North America.

We are try­ing to export this idea that Portugal has high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil because it has the most mod­ern plan­ta­tions, but we are a small coun­try,” Norte Santo said. We don’t have the tools that Italy and Spain have, so it’s not easy to export that con­cept.”

According to Norte Santo, many large Portuguese pro­duc­ers sell in bulk to Spanish and Italian brands, which blend and re-export the olive oil. He said Est. Manuel Silva Torrado is among the com­pa­nies try­ing to change this export par­a­digm.

It’s impor­tant to under­stand that we need to invest in the brands, invest in this con­cept that Portugal has amaz­ing olive oil,” he said. I think that we are mak­ing progress.”


Est. Manuel Silva Torrado has a long his­tory of export­ing Portuguese olive oil under Portuguese brand­ing. The Saloio brand, which earned a Gold Award at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, was reg­is­tered in 1925, with its Santa María brand estab­lished shortly after in 1927.

Norte Santo said both of these brands have a long his­tory in coun­tries with sig­nif­i­cant Portuguese dias­po­ras, help­ing to estab­lish the country’s extra vir­gin olive oil in some of the world’s largest con­sumers.

Different ver­sions of Saloio are pri­mar­ily sold in Asia and North America, while the Santa María brand is the company’s flag­ship oil in Brazil.

We have a lot of his­tory in coun­tries includ­ing Brazil, the United States and Canada,” he said. We came here with the Portuguese immi­gra­tion that hap­pened in the mid­dle of the cen­tury. Our brands come with these peo­ple to those mar­kets, and we are still very strong brands there.”

While work­ing to main­tain shelf space in these estab­lished mar­kets, Norte Santo set his sights on the lucra­tive East Asian mar­ket. Shortly after arriv­ing, he trav­eled to China and Japan, which con­sume a com­bined 100,000 tons of olive oil each year.

Upon his first impres­sion, Norte Santo said there was a dearth of knowl­edge in both coun­tries about its health ben­e­fits and how to cook with olive oil.

There was a lot of knowl­edge that we needed to pass to the con­sumer about the prod­uct, then about our coun­try, Portugal, and then we could present our brands,” he said.

Part of the bal­anc­ing act of being a large-scale exporter is meet­ing the demands of con­sumers with highly var­ied expec­ta­tions for the prod­uct. Norte Santo’s job is to iden­tify which Saloio blends pro­duced by the com­pany each year are best for each of their main export mar­kets.

A lot of the year, our blends are not the same, so we need to iden­tify which blends we can assign to dif­fer­ent mar­kets to sat­isfy dif­fer­ent clients,” he said.

Norte Santo said East Asian con­sumers want extra vir­gin olive oil with bit­ter and spicy notes. The blend we sell to these coun­tries has to be very good and green, with many aro­mas and fla­vors that other coun­tries don’t require.”

As a result, blends heav­ily based on the mild Galega, which Norte Santo described as a soft olive oil, even sweeter than Arbequina,” do not sell well in China, Japan or South Korea, with a far more pro­nounced pref­er­ence for blends heavy in Picual and Cobrançosa.


Est. Manuel Silva Torrado has two mills in Alentejo, with one mostly dedicated to transformign the local Galega variety.

On the con­trary, he said North American and Brazilian con­sumers are look­ing for more del­i­cate, sweeter extra vir­gin olive oils.

The Portuguese com­mu­nity in the United States talks a lot about the Galega because it’s the most known Portuguese vari­ety,” he said. Americans like this neu­tral olive oil because it does­n’t directly affect some fla­vors when the cook­ing.”

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Norte Santo said being com­pet­i­tive on price remains the main focus, though this is chang­ing.

In Brazil, it’s all about the price,” he said. They want extra vir­gin olive oil, and that is it. It’s a dif­fer­ent mar­ket. People don’t yet view the qual­ity of the olive oil like they do in the United States or Asia.”

He attrib­utes part of this to fluc­tu­a­tions in the local cur­rency, which makes it dif­fi­cult for exporters to main­tain a con­sis­tent price, and the long his­tory of com­pa­nies import­ing olive oil in bulk to bot­tle or blend with other edi­ble oils and sell under Portuguese-sound­ing brands.

Back in Portugal, Norte Santo said the com­pany faces entirely dif­fer­ent chal­lenges. Chief among them is find­ing enough peo­ple for the har­vest and stem­ming the flow of young peo­ple from the coun­try­side to urban areas.

We have an old pop­u­la­tion, so it is dif­fi­cult to iden­tify groups of peo­ple will­ing to come to the plan­ta­tions to do the har­vest,” he said.

According to Norte Santo, the com­pany has recently hired immi­grants arriv­ing in the coun­try who are will­ing to do the work.

However, the immi­grant work­force is highly tran­si­tory and may not return for the fol­low­ing har­vest. As a result, the com­pany has to train a new set of work­ers to har­vest the olives each year, which takes time and resources.

Another chal­lenge the com­pany faces is an increas­ing resent­ment from local pop­u­la­tions to the rise in high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity plan­ta­tions in Alentejo.

Norte Santo said peo­ple who oppose these types of plan­ta­tions cite a com­bi­na­tion of their visual impact on the land­scape, per­ceived use of water dur­ing times of drought and eco­nomic and social impact on tra­di­tional olive grow­ers.


Norte Santo said the Portuguese sector must find a sustainable balance between traditional and high-density and super-high-density groves.

Some peo­ple say that we are destroy­ing the envi­ron­ment of Alentejo because we plant inten­sive olive groves,” he said. This is cre­at­ing polit­i­cal noise that is not good for the sec­tor. It’s a chal­lenge to explain to the peo­ple what we are doing, why we are doing it and the advan­tage of these types of plan­ta­tions in the region.”

They think we are using more water than we need, which I would say is not true,” he added, cit­ing other more water-inten­sive crops, such as almonds, as larger water con­sumers than high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity olive grow­ers.

They tell us we are tak­ing out tra­di­tional pro­duc­ers, but this is also not true since we plant in areas that do not have tra­di­tional olive groves,” Norte Santo said.

Traditional pro­duc­ers are very impor­tant,” he added. We need to guar­an­tee that we have the Portuguese iden­tity and Portuguese vari­eties. We need to value these vari­eties. Indeed, we pay more for Portuguese vari­eties than Arbequina because they are rare.”

We need to give value to those pro­duc­ers and coex­ist in the sys­tem,” Norte Santo con­tin­ued. We can­not ignore the future, and if we do not plant at high-den­sity and super-high den­sity, with the lack of human resources we have in Portugal, we don’t have a future in the olive oil sec­tor.”

Norte Santo said social media helps feed some of these extreme posi­tions and spread nar­ra­tives that he believes are false about the role of high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity plan­ta­tions in the region.

It’s impor­tant to fight these extreme posi­tions and explain the tech­ni­cal issues of the plan­ta­tions sur­round­ing water use and impact on the soil,” he said.

There are con­sumers for all types of olive oil, for mass-pro­duced Arbequina and Picual and tra­di­tion­ally pro­duced local vari­eties,” Norte Santo con­cluded. There’s space for every­one.”

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