`Travel Notes: Magnificent Siurana - Olive Oil Times

Travel Notes: Magnificent Siurana

Dec. 8, 2014
Steven Jenkins

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I AM JUST BACK from seven full days in Siurana and the Priorat. Seven full days, five of them high in the bush, far from Reus, the Siurana’s capi­tol, and Tarragona, Reus’ sis­ter city. As Modena is to Bologna, Reus is to Tarragona. Five full days as opposed to an oblig­a­tory touch-and-go with some­one who works for some­one who works for some­one else at some dis­tin­guished mill in some region located some­where in the Mediterranean Basin. There are vis­its of mere tan­gen­tial pro­pri­ety, and then there are vis­its of depth and sub­stance, and this visit was def­i­nitely the lat­ter.

I do this a lot over the years, but this trip was by far the most sub­stan­tial of all my time in groves and mills.

The Siurana region of Catalonia (Catalunya, in Catalan) has got to be the most heartachingly gor­geous thing I will ever see, and I have seen some pretty gor­geous places. My favorite places seem always to be olive groves. The Priorat, sur­rounded com­pletely by Siurana, is what I can only describe as the rar­i­fied, most visu­ally intense part of Siurana, and here I must try to curb my hyper­bole. I’m sorry — I doubt I will suc­ceed.

Priorat, as I am sure you know, is where a lot of the great­est red wine made comes from. Priorat wine stands as an embar­rass­ment of Catalan riches, in addi­tion to the Arbequina olive oil that defines Siurana. For the record, there are two other indige­nous cul­ti­vars con­tribut­ing but a frac­tion to the total Siurana olive oil pro­duc­tion.


Priorat is a comarca (county) in Catalonia, Spain.

I ate a lot of Arbequina olives on this trip, and you surely know how deli­cious they are. I mean, I love olives, but Arbequina cured olives have to be my absolute favorite because of their intense nut­ti­ness and the inde­scrib­able sway they hold over me, more than any other cured olive. These were crisper than any I recall. I love a crisp, cured olive. I love Arbequina olives even more than I love Lucques and Tanche (Nyons) olives, and that’s a mouth­ful, because Lucques and Tanches are superla­tive.

But I never tasted Arbequina early har­vest olive oil as fine as that from the mill at La Palma d’Ebre, just out­side the Priorat to the west. Thick, but­tery, NEW oil that shrieked with per­son­al­ity, rus­tic­ity, tomato and black pep­per that I had­n’t expe­ri­enced in any Arbequina over the years. I would have guessed it was Picual! Surely this was not sub­tle, sweet, nutty Arbequina!

This oil is stored in trulls’ – deep wells in the floor of a room that date back to the time when Arabs ruled the coun­try­side, the 700s. These trulls got their name from the trolls’ that sup­pos­edly, if not def­i­nitely, resided within them. Like a troll under a bridge!

Along with its commanding cliffs, the legendary Arbequina olives define Siurana’s landscape (all photos Steven Jenkins)

Pere Mateo, full dis­clo­sure, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Siurana coop­er­a­tive UNIO and its sub­sidiary Olis De Catalunya, is a per­sonal friend of mine for more than a decade, hav­ing been intro­duced to me by my dear friend Bill Devin who died almost a decade ago. Bill Devin is a story all by him­self. He was respon­si­ble for the export of the great Catalan wines hus­banded by Pere and his co-op, as well as for the grand Siurana DOP olive oil that Fairway imports for our 15 stores.

In addi­tion to the Priorat wine, Pere’s com­pany is respon­si­ble for the qual­ity and export of the region’s Garnacha blanca, which has rock­eted to rock­star sta­tus, and is becom­ing ever­more sold, drunk and talked about. Also the dreamy Montsant red wine I per­son­ally buy by the case these days. Montsant is the north side of the Priorat, and the moun­tains that give the wine its name are par­tic­u­larly impos­ing, loom­ing and beau­ti­ful.

And, oh my heav­ens, will I ever be import­ing for Fairway Market the co-op’s Siurana Marcona and Largueta almonds, and the hazel­nuts, all of which are packed roasted in flat, vac­uum-packed, clear plas­tic sleeves that are beyond irre­sistible. I am going to sell the heck out of these Siurana nuts.

Pere Mateo (right), CEO UNIO/Olis de Catalunya with Josep Mragas, director dried fruits and nuts for the cooperative.

Pere, his #1 man Oscar and I were all over Siurana. Oscar is respon­si­ble for the export of the wines of Olis De Catalunya. We were in groves, winer­ies and olive oil mills at more vil­lages than one should be able to remem­ber, and each of them was notable. I could have been mak­ing one of those super­fi­cial vis­its, but instead we were on a mis­sion. We wanted to visit Siurana’s most tal­ented olive farm­ers and wine­mak­ers, each of whom is a part of the 20,000-farmer co-op I referred to.

And we did.

We spent hours at Poboleda with Jordi, the smartest wine­maker I ever talked to. Jordi’s Priorat red is called Llicorella, which iden­ti­fies it as a prod­uct of the shale of his severely slop­ing groves. This can hardly be referred to as soil, this shale. Jordi says you can’t make great Priorat wine from vine­yards that aren’t on shale slopes. It reminded me of the vine­yards of Cote-Rotie and Val d’Aosta. Remarkable ter­rain. This black, crumbly shale — never saw any­thing like it.

We were at Torroja, at Gratallops where Oscar and I had a lunch I shall never for­get – a per­fectly com­posed salad with pome­gran­ate and an Arbequina and apple bal­samic vinai­grette, a squash soup I could have made a meal of, and a plate of bacalla (salt cod, the Catalan spelling; bacalao in Castilian Spanish) and roasted leek I could have sworn it was fresh cod.

Golden Arbequina

At Els Guiamets, at Masroig, at Falset (the capi­tol of the Priorat), at Escaladei, the fas­ci­nat­ing ruins and remark­able site cho­sen for the old­est monastery in Catalonia. Carthusian monks first arrived at this site in the 1200s, and the stone monastery was stand­ing by 1500. This archi­tec­tural won­der and archae­o­log­i­cal trea­sure trove I found to be absolutely stun­ning. I am no more riv­eted by Segesta in Western Sicily or by Carthage in Tunisia.

We hung out with the vine­gar mak­ers at Mollerussa, just east of Lleida (Lerida, in Spanish). The Badia fam­ily, Agusti the father, about my age (64), and his daugh­ters Marta and Judith. Their facil­ity is old, old, old, and beau­ti­ful and fas­ci­nat­ing, and what they have done with vine­gar is like noth­ing I have ever expe­ri­enced. I am a self-con­fessed vine­gar freak. I adore good vine­gar, and I appre­ci­ate the mak­ing of it as much as I appre­ci­ate the mak­ing of olive oil and wine.

The Badia fam­ily should patent their process, and if I tried to explain it to you now, we would lose the thread of this essay. I import their entire range of vine­gars – Moscatell, Vermouth (the Catalan pro­duc­tion of ver­mouth is one of the bench­marks — one of the defin­ing virtues of Catalonia. Catalans love Vermouth, Cava, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and I can­not wait for the arrival of their bit­ter­sweets’ — so named because of the Badia family’s addi­tion of a cer­tain mea­sure of Merlot wine must and Riesling wine must to these wine vine­gars. Much as the price and qual­ity of Modenese bal­samic vine­gar is deter­mined and mea­sured by the quan­tity of Lambrusco wine grape must com­bined with bal­samic vine­gar, it is the must that gives these vine­gars their depth of fra­grance and fla­vor.

The Monastery of Scala Dei

Its story goes back to the 12th cen­tury, when Carthusian monks came from Provence to found their order’s first monastery on the Iberian penin­sula

Here at Mollerussa it was explained to me that Agusti Badia’s great-great-grand­fa­ther was one of many in the area who trav­eled by horse cart to Barcelona for the 1888 expo­si­tion in order to abscond with some of the tons of iron brought there by Gustave Eiffel in his attempt to per­suade the city to com­mis­sion the con­struc­tion of Eiffel’s tower. They thought the notion of a tower was strange and unmoved, they refused. So Eiffel went to the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889, and the rest is his­tory. The Badia fam­ily vine­gar facil­ity has Eiffel iron hold­ing it up and all across the ceil­ing.

I want to tell you more, but this report is too long already, and you have been very patient. Last points must be made:

Reus is one hand­some, sophis­ti­cated city of around 100,000 Catalan souls. Tarragona, replete with its mar­velous Roman antiq­uity, is slightly larger, and at least as hand­some, and has a ram­bla that leads to, and ends on, a dra­matic prom­e­nade high above the sea. The cit­i­zens of Reus are as com­pet­i­tive with, and dis­mis­sive of, Tarragona as the Modenese are of Bologna. Reus is where Gaudi was born, and the pri­vate house he was born in announces the fact with a strik­ing civic exte­rior plac­ard — also has a sign put up by the building’s own­ers that reads in Catalan, This is a pri­vate home. Please do not ring the bell.”

Steven Jenkins

Barcelona is even more cap­ti­vat­ing today than it has been in each of the 25 years I’ve been spend­ing time there, often twice a year. Pere took us to his pal Daniel Rueda’s pin­txo joint called Tapeo, just down the Barri Gòtic block that houses the Picasso Museum. This tapas bar is such a local hero that you need a reser­va­tion. A reser­va­tion for a tapas bar! Of all of the tapas bars I have fre­quented from San Sebastian to Sevilla, this Tapeo blew my socks off like no other. Daniel Rueda is a rock­star. Sweetbreads with fresh ceps (cepes, porcini, stein­pilze). Pork short ribs with a mus­tard and honey reduc­tion. Flattened squares of grilled leek laid out in a sort of checker­board fash­ion. His Catalan desserts are like none any­where else in Catalonia, or all of Spain, for that mat­ter.

That being said, I am defense­less against sweet­breads, short ribs and leeks, I must tell you. And, yes – I con­sumed more than my share of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. At every oppor­tu­nity, to be sure. And pa amb tomà­quet! Tomato and raw gar­lic-rubbed bread driz­zled with olive oil. A way of life. Anchovies from Escala. Siurana olive oil. Is this the world’s finest?


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