` Trás-os-Montes Producers Focus on Quality

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Trás-os-Montes Producers Focus on Quality

Nov. 15, 2010
By Julie Butler

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In a cor­ner of the cor­ner of West­ern Europe lies a multi-prize win­ning pocket of olive oil coun­try. As its Por­tuguese name sug­gests, Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro lies beyond the moun­tains in a val­ley high up the Douro river in north-east­ern Por­tu­gal.

The Trasmon­tanos are said to be dar­ing and hard­work­ing, traits sup­pos­edly the fruit of cen­turies strug­gling amid harsh soil and an inclement cli­mate. Whether an accu­rate stereo­type or not, some­thing keeps pro­pelling this region into the inter­na­tional spot­light for pre­mium olive oil.

The Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro region cov­ers more than 34,000 grow­ers and 80 labels and sup­plied 30% of Portugal’s 2008-09 olive oil out­put of 50,000 tons. In recent months it has added to its prize-haul with suc­cess on three con­ti­nents.

Flos Olei, the Ital­ian-pro­duced guide to the best EVOOs, this year placed Trasmon­tano pro­ducer Maria Andrade in its world top 20. The guide gives olive oil pro­duc­ing farms a 0 – 100 rank­ing and Por­tu­gal’s high­est-rated was also from the Azeite Trás-os-Montes DOP — Romeu da Sociedade Clemente Menéres, with 92 points. Of the 17 Por­tuguese pro­duc­ers included in the 2010 guide, nine were from this DOP. (DOP is equiv­a­lent to the EU clas­si­fi­ca­tion PDO, or Pro­tected Des­ig­na­tion of Ori­gin.)

With her João das Bar­bas EVOO, Maria Andrade also took sec­ond place in the PDO cat­e­gory at the first World Com­pe­ti­tion of EVOO, held in the Shang­hai World Expo’s Ital­ian pavil­ion.

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And in the USA, the Porca de Murça olive oil was yet again dis­tin­guished as one of the best in the world. This Trás-os-Montes DOP prod­uct won sil­ver in the Medium, Lote 50 cat­e­gory at the 2010 Los Ange­les Inter­na­tional Extra Vir­gin Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion. Magna Olea, from the same DOP, took bronze in the Medium, Cobrançosa cat­e­gory.

Chal­lenges

Branco

Despite all this suc­cess, António Branco, pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Olive Grow­ers of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (AOTAD), says the region has some major prob­lems.

Among these are that Por­tu­gal has no national inter-pro­fes­sional body to pro­mote and pro­tect its olive oil indus­try. Accord­ing to Branco, the gov­ern­ment is more wor­ried about reduc­ing Por­tu­gal’s reliance on imported olive oil for domes­tic con­sump­tion than on increas­ing its qual­ity exports. He’d like Por­tu­gal to do more to pro­mote its oil over­seas and to expe­dite the imple­men­ta­tion of an EU reg­u­la­tion requir­ing the coun­try of ori­gin to appear on olive oil bot­tles.

Another prob­lem is that in Por­tu­gal the com­mer­cial use of azeite’ (Por­tuguese for olive oil) refers to a mix­ture of refined olive oil and EVOO. This is con­fus­ing for Por­tuguese con­sumers so AOTAD would like azeite’ to be used only to refer to EVOO and VOO,” Branco said.

Alheira de Miran­dela

The Trans­mon­tanos are famed for their plen­ti­ful tables, replete with local wine, olive oil and sausages, and it’s a con­cept Branco sees poten­tial to exploit. His vision is for a regional brand to pro­mote qual­ity local pro­duce includ­ing olive oil, wine, cheese, honey, bread and local meats and sausages such as the tra­di­tional Alheira de Miran­dela.

AOTAD is also work­ing for the adop­tion of a new DOP in the area, cov­er­ing the Douro region, and on pos­si­ble joint tourism and mar­ket­ing with Spain’s neigh­bor­ing Castilla y León region. It is also invest­ing 1.3 mil­lion euros ($1.8m) in a social media net­work giv­ing DOP mem­bers access to pro­duc­tion and qual­ity data, use­ful infor­ma­tion such as threats to olive trees, and an on-line trad­ing plat­form.

With all this ini­tia­tive it’s not sur­pris­ing that AOTAD was last year’s win­ner of the Flos Olei Cristina Tili­a­cos” prize, which rec­og­nizes excel­lence in the pro­mo­tion
and dif­fu­sion of olive cul­ti­va­tion.

Seg­men­ta­tion

Olive oil pro­duc­tion has been impor­tant in this region since at least the 16th cen­tury but the Azeite de Trás-os-Montes DOP did not come into exis­tence until 1994. It is now one of six DOPs in Por­tu­gal and the coun­try’s sec­ond largest area of olive oil pro­duc­tion.

The guide says the main olive vari­eties in the Azeite de Trás-os-Montes PDO — Cobrançosa (30%), Verdeal Trans­mon­tana (25%), Madural (20%), Cor­dovil (10%) — pro­duce very refined and com­plex oils with a scent of spices, almond and other dried fruit”.

The DOP spans 3100 km², nearly 6000 DOP farms and 47,000ha of DOP olive groves. Olive and olive oil pro­duc­tion boost the regional econ­omy by more than 30 mil­lion euros ($41m) a year. But none of the grow­ers makes a liv­ing from olives alone — they also farm ani­mals and grow other prod­ucts. They all sell their olives to one of the region’s 17 coop­er­a­tives or to one of the 100 local mills.

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In a 2004 dis­cus­sion paper, Uni­ver­sity of Minho researchers J. Cadima Ribeiro and J. Fre­itas San­tos reported that des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin, a producer’s brand and olive oil char­ac­ter­is­tics (organic, mixed with gar­lic or herbs, etc.) all have a pos­i­tive impact on prices for Por­tuguese olive oil. They said giv­ing more
vis­i­bil­ity to the region of ori­gin on labels and estab­lish­ing brand names were appro­pri­ate moves, but should be accom­pa­nied by qual­ity cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to stop free-rid­ers”.

The Agri­cul­tural Coop­er­a­tive of Grow­ers of Murça (CAOM) is an exam­ple of the wide­spread seg­men­ta­tion that has since occurred within the Trás-os-Montes DOP. CAOM has restruc­tured to diver­sify its range, update its image, and adhere to extremely high-qual­ity stan­dards. It expects to increase its sales vol­ume by 20% in two years, based on invest­ment in exter­nal mar­kets of high added value.

Branco says that across the DOP, coop­er­a­tives, mills and pack­ers have upgraded their tech­nol­ogy and adopted best prac­tices in terms of fac­tors such as har­vest tim­ing and tem­per­a­ture con­trol. The train­ing of olive oil tasters in the region was another key plank in the focus on pre­mium oil.

An 81-year-old new­comer

Andrade

The Flos Olei Emerg­ing Olive Oil Mill” prize won by Maria Andrade is intended to encour­age young” farms. Andrade’s fam­ily have for gen­er­a­tions grown olives in the Miran­dela area of the DOP but it was­n’t until 2008, at the age of 80, that she started pro­duc­ing her own olive oil.

Andrade’s 29ha grove is almost totally organ­i­cally farmed and she har­vests early, to avoid the hard win­ters”. She says this costs her a lit­tle in terms of the yield, but pays off in extra­or­di­nary qual­ity”. Flos Olei says her João das Bar­bas oil is excel­lent”, hav­ing an intense limpid golden yel­low color”, ample aroma, and a com­plex taste includ­ing hints of chicory, let­tuce, mint and sage. A 250ml bot­tle retails in Por­tu­gal for 4 – 6 euros ($5.48-$8.21).

Hav­ing started on such a suc­cess­ful note, Maria Andrade says she now has a big respon­si­bil­ity: because I can not let the qual­ity drop.” The DOP can only stay viable, if we invest in qual­ity.” The prob­lem is that many of the olive grow­ers har­vest late because the yield and price are bet­ter, but you only get qual­ity if you har­vest before the arrival of frost, oth­er­wise, the oil lacks aroma.” She says peo­ple need to be edu­cated on how to take advan­tage of the DOP.

It’s a sen­ti­ment Branco shares and hopes the Por­tuguese gov­ern­ment will also soon embrace.

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