`Arbequina Country - Olive Oil Times

Arbequina Country

May. 10, 2010
Will Dunn

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Here in Spain, you can get a good idea of their feel­ings about olive oil by going into any super­mar­ket. In other coun­tries, you’d find a few bot­tles of the store’s pri­vate label brand, per­haps a more upmar­ket main­stream vari­ety, a fla­vored oil or two – stacked amongst the sun­flower oil and the Crisp-N-Dry. In Spain, how­ever, aceite has a whole aisle to itself. 

Grouped by vari­ety and region, even a bog-stan­dard super­mar­ket can offer a decent selec­tion of oils. But then, you don’t go to Bordeaux just to buy your wine from some face­less hyper­marché.

Just as you’d strike out into the French coun­try­side for a case of some­thing spe­cial, so too in Spain – it pays to go exploring.

Home to two of the world’s top restau­rants, Catalonia in the far north-east of Spain is a region with oli d’oliva run­ning in its veins. The two basic ele­ments of Catalan cui­sine, pa amb toma­quet (bread spread with tomato and olive oil) and alli­oli (a sauce made from gar­lic, olive oil and noth­ing else) rely on the region’s superb oils, most of which are made from a dis­tinc­tive fruit: the Arbequina olive. 

With a but­tery, slightly nutty fla­vor and a mild pep­per­corn fin­ish, Arbequina oil is an indul­gent treat. It even looks rich: a clear, sunny, lus­trous gold, it’s a con­trast to the rus­tic green huile pro­duced just over the bor­der in France.

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Although it may orig­i­nally have come from the Middle East, the Arbequina takes its name from the vil­lage of Arbeca, in Catalonia’s moun­tain­ous heart. 

A world away from the bus­tle of Barcelona and the beaches of the Costa Brava, cen­tral Catalonia is a place of soar­ing cliffs and dizzy­ing beauty, of small vil­lages cling­ing to steep hill­sides dot­ted with groves of stumpy Arbequina trees. 

Smaller and hardier than other olive trees, the Arbequina is well equipped to sur­vive the moun­tain win­ters. Their olives are among the most oil-rich of any vari­ety, with a flesh that can be around 25% oil. Arbequinas make a nice table olive, too, with the cur­ing process impart­ing a soft smok­i­ness to their but­tery taste, but it’s the oil itself that is most highly prized. 

The small trees are dif­fi­cult to har­vest mechan­i­cally, so the Arbequina resists indus­tri­al­iza­tion – thou­sands of tra­di­tional, inde­pen­dent farms con­tinue to ply their own vari­eties, and Catalonia is home to no less than four PDO olive oil regions.

Terra Alta and Baix Ebre, in the far south, pro­duce won­der­ful oils but they are over­shad­owed by Les Garrigues, an area where extinct vol­ca­noes give the soil a min­eral richness. 

In the same way that the vol­canic soil of Liguria in Italy pro­duces the world’s finest basil, the long-dead cin­ders of Les Garrigues sup­ply the region’s trees with an extra some­thing that no human chem­istry can reproduce. 

Accordingly, the flag of Les Garrigues a pic­ture of an olive branch.

It is the fourth DOP, how­ever, that is the real high­light for any vis­i­tor to Arbequina country. 

Not far from Arbeca itself is the vil­lage of Siurana, a weath­ered lit­tle set­tle­ment that has perched on a breath­tak­ing out­crop of rock, hun­dreds of meters above the val­ley below, for the best part of a thou­sand years. 

In the crisp moun­tain air, wild herbs flour­ish in the val­leys and hill­sides around Siurana, and small olive groves crop up here and there along­side the vine­yards which pro­duce Priorat, one of Spain’s most expen­sive and highly-regarded wines. 

Like the vines, the olive trees take their time, turn­ing out low yields of small fruit, but the results are well worth the wait. Pungent with almonds and hazel­nuts, the oil of Siurana lacks the big, pep­pery bite of less sub­tle arbe­quina oils. Instead, it has a del­i­cate herbal com­plex­ity – all that clear moun­tain light and fresh air express­ing them­selves in the oil.

Some farms har­vest twice in the year: if you can, try the young fruity oil of the first har­vest with Catalonia’s mar i muntanya (sea and moun­tain) dishes, herby com­bi­na­tions of seafood and meat, and save the sweeter, golden oil of the late har­vest to enjoy with cheese and mem­brillo, the hard quince paste that the Spanish pair with manchego.

Better yet, take a piece of good crusty bread, rub gen­tly with gar­lic, smear with squashed fresh tomato, and pour any Siurana oil over the top: pa amb toma­quet, the dish no proper Catalan meal can go without.

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