Photo of Maria José San Román by Pepe Nieto

The Second Conference on Extra Virgin Olive Oil last week in Úbeda focused on health and heritage. Even well after the sunset, attendees could still be found in the streets sharing a beer to further discuss what they had learned during the day.

The Center for Interpretation of Olive Oil and the Olive Grove along with the Olive Grove and Oil Association of Jaén organized the event. Their primary goal is to promote olive oil culture on all levels. They not only support tourism, educational activities and producers but also organize events like the one that took place this week.

The conference had well-respected speakers that covered topics on health, product promotion, farming practices and gastronomy.

The first speaker was Eduard Escrich, director of the Department of Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). He leads the Multidisciplinary Group on Breast Cancer Study, which has many national and international collaborators, two of which are in the United States: Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and Georgetown University in Washington.

For 32 years the group has studied the effect that the consumption of dietary fats can have on the development and growth of cancer. Their findings have shown that, although the consumption of extra virgin olive oil does not cure cancer it can delay the appearance, reduce the malignancy and slow its growth.

Escrich recommended a daily intake of 3 to 5 tablespoons (50 ml or about ¼ cup) of EVOO for healthy individuals. For those combatting cancer, he suggested a lower dose of olive oil. He then explained that patients in recovery should consume a very low dose of EVOO and focus on essential fatty acids.

The next speaker was Francisco Garcia Mendoza, the director of IberOleum. IberOleum is a new guide about extra virgin olive oil in Spain that compiles the Spain´s best-rated olive oils according to its top olive oil tasters, the year´s olive oil data, chefs and organizations.

I met up with Garcia after the event to inquire more about the guide. He said they have made the guide digital so that subscribers can always have the information on hand and be able to compare year after year the positions of their favorite oils. He hopes to offer the guide in English and in Chinese.

Next up was Victor Perez from the award winning olive oil, Finca la Torre. Perez spoke about their groves and how they implement biodynamic farming practices. Biodynamic methods emphasize a holistic, ecological and ethical approach to farming. Finca la Torre not only practices natural ways of farming but they also give back to the community by promoting social events.

He explained that although a seal for biodynamic can be a plus in countries like France and Germany where the practice is known and appreciated, he often removes the seal for sales in countries like the United States where it can confuse consumers.

After a cocktail lunch with olive oil pairings, Juan Vilar spoke on sales strategies. He told the producers in the audience that to make high grade EVOO was just not enough. Some of the producers looked on in disbelief as Vilar claimed that their hard work didn’t cut it. However, He went on to explain the importance of making their brand different from others, innovation, sending out a message to consumers and promotion of their products.

Last but not least, came Maria Jose San Román. San Román is the owner and chef of the restaurant, Monastrell, located in Alicante for which she has earned a Michelin Star.

She has taught audiences how to use olive oil through her cooking demonstrations. In Úbeda, it was no different and her zeal for the product was evident. However, she missed the American audience. She told the Spanish attendees she gets a much better reception in the United States. They are always so eager to learn.

Her message was clear. We must educate the Spanish consumer on olive oil. She made the comparison to wine in the 1980s. Spanish people had no idea what good wine was before the producers went to restaurants to do tastings and to educate them. Now, we must do the same for olive oil.

Her restaurant´s menu not only describes the main elements of each dish, but also the type of olive oil being paired with the plate. Starters to desserts contain olive oil. She claims that it makes all the difference and is her secret ingredient.

Her recommendation to those from Jaén, use Picual olive oil with artichokes. It is the perfect pairing.

To close the event, awards were given out to Escrich, San Román, the producers of Oro Bailén, and to the Interprofesional del Aceite de Oliva Español for their dedication.