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

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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.

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.


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