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.
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.