Casas de Hualdo: In the World of Don Quixote

I thought good oil could only be produced in small quantities, like a good cup of coffee. Casas de Hualdo represents a thought-provoking mix of quantity and quality.

Casas de Hualdo
Feb. 6, 2020
By Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Casas de Hualdo

Recent News

The longest river in Iberia, the Tajo, runs west­ward across Spain some 600 miles from its source high in the Aragon moun­tains, cir­cling ancient Toledo’s ram­parts and emp­ty­ing into the Atlantic near Lisbon. 

By many accounts, it’s a river in cri­sis, threat­ened by pol­lu­tion, too many dams (51 hydropower dams in Spain alone), and the effects of an unre­lent­ing, years-long, drought that has reduced water flow in parts of the river to barely sus­tain­able levels. 

But from where I’m stand­ing, west of Toledo on a low rise that looks down on the swift-flow­ing river it’s hard to see the Tajo as any­thing but abun­dant, daz­zling blue as it reflects the sky in mid-November. Despite the win­try land­scape, the rip­pling water dances between the banks, close to overflowing. 

As I learn from Jose Peche, who brought me here to show me the river, the abun­dance of fresh water from the Tajo is one rea­son behind the remark­able suc­cess of the olive oil he makes at Casas de Hualdo, just over the hill behind us, one of Spain’s newest, largest, and most notable estates.

Peche has been man­ag­ing direc­tor of Casas de Hualdo for the past 20 years since the estate began seri­ously pro­duc­ing olive oil. The first 300,000 trees were planted in 1996, with an ini­tial small har­vest in 1999. Under Peche’s direc­tion, a state-of-the-art mill was added ten years later and the fol­low­ing year the first bot­tles of Casas de Hualdo went off to market.

Quality matters.
Find the world's best olive oils near you.

Twenty years is not long in Spain where some estates go back half a mil­len­nium in the same fam­ily. Hualdo is a youth­ful inter­loper, the result not of gen­er­a­tional tra­di­tions but of the dreams of one man, the late Francisco Riberas, a dis­creet steel mag­nate, said to have been one of the rich­est men in Spain. 

Pulling nets at Casas de Hualdo

In the 1980s, Riberas bought 400 hectares (nearly 1,000 acres) of this undu­lat­ing river val­ley that rises to the Montes de Toledo to the south, for use as a hunt­ing pre­serve. Added to over the years, the estate today com­prises 40,000 hectares (nearly 10,000 acres), a closely guarded prop­erty where wild ani­mals — boar, deer, rab­bits and long-horned moun­tain sheep — roam freely. 

Something about the land­scape also tweaked Riberas’s agrar­ian aspi­ra­tions for it was he who had the olives planted — 300,000 of them, Arbequina, Manzanilla, and the Spanish work­horses Picual and Cornicabra — on some 680 hectares (about 1,680 acres) of the estate. Casas de Hualdo is a closely held fam­ily affair, still owned by the Riberas fam­ily and still pro­duc­ing olive oil. 

As estate man­ager, Peche is given free rein to run what amounts to a self-sus­tain­ing olive farm that also pro­duces fod­der (bar­ley, wheat, rye, and maize corn) for a herd of nearly 2,000 Manchega sheep — expected shortly to begin pro­vid­ing milk for cheese made on the farm, also under the direc­tion of the multi-tal­ented Peche. 

Manure from the sheep fer­til­izes the olive groves as well as a sub­stan­tial orchard of pis­ta­chio trees, while olive pits pro­vide fuel for farm oper­a­tions; the residue of oil pro­duc­tion, includ­ing pruned branches, is recy­cled back into the land. Solar power is used wher­ever pos­si­ble (this is sunny Spain, after all), includ­ing to pump Tajo river water for irrigation. 

All of this is con­trolled by a wide-rang­ing com­puter net­work that tracks every­thing from the humid­ity of the soil to the ripen­ing stage of indi­vid­ual plants to the tem­per­a­ture of the olive paste as it goes through the malaxer.

The estate rep­re­sents a thought-pro­vok­ing mix of quan­tity and qual­ity — a fine exam­ple of what enthu­si­as­tic own­ers with plenty of money can achieve, espe­cially with wise stewardship. 

Under Peche’s care­ful guid­ance, Casas de Hualdo has become a pre­mium, award-win­ning brand, join­ing the grow­ing ranks of very high-qual­ity oils from Spain. All this in a very short time. 

Moreover, the quan­tity of fine extra-vir­gin pro­duced on the estate is remark­able. In an ordi­nary year, Peche told me, the tar­get is 600 tons of oil, or about 750,000 liters (because of per­sis­tent drought, the 2019 cam­paign was low, yield­ing only 430 tons). 

I know of no other high-end Spanish pro­duc­ers who come even close to that mark. Castillo de Canena, for instance, another pro­ducer of excep­tional oils, makes 80,000 liters annu­ally, and oth­ers (such as Marques de Griñon, Masia Altet) are in a sim­i­lar range.

Before I vis­ited Casas de Hualdo, I thought good oil could only be pro­duced, like a good cup of cof­fee, in small quan­ti­ties. It had always seemed clear to me that so much Spanish oil was mediocre pre­cisely because it was pro­duced in vast quan­ti­ties from giant coop­er­a­tives that drew on dozens, often hun­dreds, of farms. 

Oil coming out at Casas de Hualdo

Quality con­trol at such a scale is almost impos­si­ble. Olives are har­vested too late, han­dled indif­fer­ently, kept too long before milling, and gen­er­ally treated as a com­mod­ity crop and not some­thing to com­mand a high-end lux­ury market. 

Much of the oil, dis­tin­guished by its fusty fla­vor, is sold in bulk, often to bot­tlers in Italy who mix it with sim­i­lar oils from all over the Mediterranean, send­ing it to mar­ket with the cov­eted Made in Italy label. (Spanish pro­duc­ers always cry foul but long before the intro­duc­tion of the euro, it was Spanish oil mak­ers who deposited Italian lire in their local banks; in other words, no one forced the Spanish to do this — it was just eas­ier than putting the effort into mak­ing great oil.) 

Of course, there were Spanish pro­duc­ers who paid atten­tion to qual­ity but they were pre­cious few in num­ber, made small quan­ti­ties, and were often dif­fi­cult to find in the inter­na­tional marketplace. 

In the last 30 years or so, all that has changed, and Casas de Hualdo has become a major part of the change. 

Under Peche’s direc­tion, the estate bot­tles four mono­va­ri­etal oils (Arbequina, Manzanilla, Picual and Cornicabra) plus a blend called Riserva di Familia and the adorably cute, car­toon-labeled Casitas de Hualdo, intended to entice chil­dren with their very own first olive oil. 

These are dis­tinc­tive bot­tlings, each with its own fla­vor pro­file but each also with a kind of prickly spici­ness that I asso­ciate with the dry, acer­bic land­scape of La Mancha — Quixote coun­try — the place Casas de Hualdo calls home.

Casas de Hualdo

So how, I asked Jose, is he able to pro­duce such qual­ity in such quan­tity? What is the secret to mak­ing so much high-qual­ity oil? 

He answered over the course of four days as we toured the estate (chas­ing elu­sive roe deer), observed the har­vest (late-ripen­ing Picual and Cornicabra), donned pro­tec­tive gear to visit the immac­u­late mill, and sat around a broad oak table tast­ing the first new oil in all its veg­e­ta­tive glory. 

Just fol­low­ing the rules,” Jose explained. 

Cleanliness is all-impor­tant, as well as keep­ing the fresh har­vest at low tem­per­a­tures through­out the extrac­tion process. And speed: Modern equip­ment and tech­niques,” he said, have brought about a kind of rev­o­lu­tion. It’s not pos­si­ble to pro­duce high-qual­ity olive oil with the old ways. Of course, there are things we miss in old recipes, old prod­ucts, but that’s not the case for olive oil.” 

Clean, clean, clean, he empha­sized over and over again, and you only get that scrupu­lous clean­li­ness with stain­less steel equip­ment through­out har­vest­ing, milling, malax­ing, extract­ing, fil­ter­ing, and then, of course, stor­ing in stain­less vats under a flush of nitro­gen to pro­tect the del­i­cate nature of the oil.

The results are out­stand­ing. Casa de Hualdo earned Gold Awards for its Picual and Riserva de Familia at the 2019 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, and the Italian direc­tory Flos Olei has granted high marks (97 to 99 points) to Casas de Hualdo’s Picual, Manzanilla, and Cornicabra. But a guide­book isn’t nec­es­sary to under­stand the qual­ity of these oils. 

The finest Spanish oils, to my taste at least, have a soft­ness, a lush­ness that is enor­mously appeal­ing to the North American palate. Casas de Hualdo’s oils are no exception. 

At the same time, they’re dis­tin­guished by that dry, prickly, acer­bic, almost straw-like char­ac­ter that I men­tioned ear­lier. For me, it’s a per­fect bal­ance of grace and clar­ity. And it speaks strongly of this place in the world — aus­tere and yet, like Don Quixote him­self, muy simpatico.


Related News

Feedback / Suggestions