Producer Profiles

Quality and Tradition at Valpaços

The Cooperativa de Olivicultores de Valpacos, one of the most renowned Portuguese producers, has over 2,200 associates from the town of Valpaços and neighboring Mirandela.

Olive groves near Valpaços (14)
Jul. 15, 2019
By Pablo Esparza
Olive groves near Valpaços (14)

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The coun­try­side around Valpaços is one of gently rolling hills with alter­nat­ing patches of pine forests, cork oaks, olives, almonds and figs. This is the quin­tes­sen­tial land­scape of Trás-os-Montes, a mainly rural region in the inte­rior of Northwest Portugal which is the second-largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region of the coun­try, only after Alentejo.

José Ventura, direc­tor gen­eral of the olive grow­ers’ coop­er­a­tive of Valpaços, showed an Olive Oil Times reporter the olive groves sur­round­ing the vil­lage.

Ventura has been work­ing in this coop­er­a­tive, one of the largest in Portugal, for over 25 years.

“I started almost out of neces­sity. My par­ents didn’t have the means for me to study, so I worked for the coop­er­a­tive and stud­ied at the same time”, he said, as he drove to Fonte Merce, one of the little vil­lages taking their olives to the coop­er­a­tive.



 



“Once I entered the world of olive oil, I became pas­sion­ate about it.”

The Valpaços coop­er­a­tive was founded in 1952 with just 28 mem­bers.

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Now, almost seven decades later, it has over 2,200 asso­ciates from the town of Valpaços and neigh­bor­ing Mirandela and pro­duces over 2 mil­lion liters of oil each year.

Despite those big fig­ures, the coop­er­a­tive has man­aged to com­bine a high-qual­ity pro­duc­tion, becom­ing one of the most renowned Portuguese pro­duc­ers.

This year they won two Gold Awards and two Silver Awards at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, the most recent recog­ni­tion that added to sev­eral prizes obtained in pre­vi­ous edi­tions of the con­test.

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Producing high-qual­ity olive oil has no secrets, Ventura pointed out. But har­vest­ing at the right moment, when the fruit is at the right stage of ripen­ing, is key.

It may seem easy. However, bring­ing together such a large coop­er­a­tive to this point has not been a straight­for­ward task.

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“There was a resis­tance among some mem­bers to har­vest olives at early stages as they thought that har­vest­ing later, when they are ripe, would increase their per­for­mance,” he recalled.

In order to change people’s minds about the right moment to har­vest and improve qual­ity, the coop­er­a­tive pio­neered a mea­sure in Portugal some 15 years ago: “We put in place a system of rewards for those asso­ci­ated farm­ers who har­vest at the begin­ning of the season. Those who har­vest early, get a bonus of 80 cents per kilo,” Ventura explained. “The number of people join­ing to the early har­vest steadily increased.”

Portugal, with a pro­duc­tion of 132,000 tons of olive oil last year, is the sev­enth largest pro­ducer after Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunis, Turkey and Morocco, accord­ing to data from the International Olive Oil Council.

Valpaços, a town with a pop­u­la­tion of about 16,000, is at the hinge between the Terras Quentes (hot lands) and the Terras Frias (cold lands) of Trás-os-Montes. “From here to the South, olive trees and other fruit trees are grown. To the North, there are some fruit trees as well, but they mainly grow chest­nuts.” Ventura explains.

Unlike other olive oil-pro­duc­ing regions in Portugal, where inten­sive irri­gated olive groves have been planted in recent years, most of the farms in this area are still tra­di­tional ones, keep­ing a dis­tance of six meters between every tree.

“Being able to pre­serve and main­tain tra­di­tional, non-irri­gated olive groves is key to making a dif­fer­ence in terms of qual­ity. This, and our local cul­ti­vars, are the key fea­tures that give our olive oil its spe­cial taste,” Ventura said, show­ing how cen­turies-old olive trees mix with recently planted ones.

As in the rest of the Trás-os-Montes region, Cobrançosa, Madural and Verdeal Transmontana are the main cul­ti­vars grown in Valpaços.

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“We keep doing the new plan­ta­tions the same way they used to be done five cen­turies ago,” Ventura said.

“In inten­sive olive groves, costs are small com­pared to here. Although some of the har­vest is done with mechan­i­cal means, large parts of it are still done man­u­ally and costs are higher. We seek qual­ity. We can never com­pete in terms of quan­tity with other regions.”

“So we need to pre­serve the tra­di­tional non-irri­gated olive groves. That is my call and my pas­sion.”