`An Interview with David Marcos Merchán - Olive Oil Times

An Interview with David Marcos Merchán

Oct. 1, 2013

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David Marcos Merchán

Agricultural Engineer and Sales Director of Viñedo y Olivar de Viveros Provedo

We have allowed the top chefs become the spokes­peo­ple of the entire food chain, when the real pro­tag­o­nists of our table are actu­ally the farm­ers

We began to put the con­tent of this inter­view together around the mid­dle of last March, over a pleas­ant meal in El Bohío, the restau­rant that the TV per­son­al­ity Pepe Rodríguez man­ages in the Toledo town of Illescas. We were inter­ested in get­ting David’s opin­ion of issues as thorny as the types of fat used by the food indus­try, the use of olive oil in restau­rant kitchens, the knowl­edge level of con­sumers when it comes to this prod­uct or the future law on non-refill­able bot­tle tops. It’s not that the menu we sam­pled inspired any of this. On the con­trary. It couldn’t have been more exquis­ite. We sim­ply knew that David has no qualms about express­ing his opin­ion on any sub­ject and we didn’t want to miss our chance.

Our friend­ship with David came about almost by coin­ci­dence. Before we knew him at all, we requested the use of some of the pho­tos pub­lished on his web­site to illus­trate one of our first reports. After ver­i­fy­ing our healthy inten­tions, not only did he end up giv­ing them to us free of charge, but he also began to col­lab­o­rate with us, tak­ing over the From the Tree to the Table” sec­tion. Since then, his texts have been among the most read and appre­ci­ated by our national and inter­na­tional read­ers.

At present, this agri­cul­tural engi­neer is almost a mem­ber of our team. He is always will­ing to lend a hand, he’s a good lis­tener and he is an end­less source of knowl­edge and good advice. Thanks for always being there.

Olive oil has formed part of our cul­ture since time immemo­r­ial. Yet, this does not mean that we know every­thing there is to know about it, or do we?

In real­ity, we started to dis­cover its prop­er­ties recently. To be more exact, what we are doing now is re-dis­cov­er­ing them, as in ancient times olive oil was already con­sid­ered a healthy prod­uct.
In my opin­ion, it is not a ques­tion of how much we know about olive oil, but rather how many peo­ple receive this infor­ma­tion, whether they live in coun­tries with an olive pro­duc­tion tra­di­tion like our own, or whether they live in other places where this prod­uct is some­what more exotic.

In your opin­ion, what infor­ma­tion should reach the con­sumers?

The con­sumer is unfa­mil­iar with any­thing he has not learned, either because he has not received the infor­ma­tion or because he has not shown any inter­est in it.

Olive oil is a heart-healthy fat which pre­vents numer­ous dis­eases and reg­u­lates cho­les­terol like no other is capa­ble of doing so. It is per­fect as a food­stuff in every sense.

These qual­i­ties, bit by bit, are start­ing to be acknowl­edged the world over. Yet, the con­sumer is also exposed to a bom­bard­ment of con­stant decep­tive infor­ma­tion, as occurs with the adver­tis­ing of cer­tain healthy” mar­garines which, in real­ity, are made of unhealthy veg­e­tal fats. There are even those who would have us believe that the soy in some yoghurts has been sci­en­tif­i­cally proven to help lower cho­les­terol. This is only a half-truth –or a half-lie, depend­ing on how you look at it‑, because while it is true that this legume con­tributes to slightly low­er­ing bad cho­les­terol, it also low­ers the good cho­les­terol. And, as if that weren’t enough, the pre­vi­ous lev­els are recov­ered after diges­tion.

In this sense, the olive juice is unique and unsur­pass­able among all food­stuffs.

Tell us a bit more about that, what do you think of the type of veg­e­tal fats the food indus­try uses to for­mu­late its processed prod­ucts?

I find it regret­table that they are used, that the con­sumer has allowed it to hap­pen and that the indus­try has taken advan­tage.

In their obses­sion with buy­ing what­ever is cheap­est, con­sumers have unwit­tingly accepted that prod­ucts incor­po­rate fats which are under no cir­cum­stance healthy for the organ­ism. The prob­lem is that, at this stage, it’s hard to choose and avoid cer­tain prod­ucts. Do the test your­self. Try to buy bis­cuits, may­on­naise or a ready-cooked meal that does not con­tain veg­e­tal fat”. This expres­sion hides coconut oil or palm oil, or many oth­ers, which are so sat­u­rated that they are pure lard.

We inno­cently believe that veg­e­tal fats refer to sun­flower oil which, after all, is not harm­ful. But the truth is very dif­fer­ent. The indus­try has found a way of cheap­en­ing its prod­ucts by using these exotic fats, that come from sin­gle crops that destroy the bio­di­ver­sity of trop­i­cal zones, seduce the con­sumer with their prices and, at the same time, make us eat junk food with­out even know­ing it.

This is why it is increas­ingly impor­tant to increase our food cul­ture, because this allows us to know what we’re eat­ing and helps us choose.

The qual­ity of the oils offered by restau­rants and other hostelry estab­lish­ments doesn’t reach the min­i­mal lev­els desired either. This is why the Ministry for Agriculture recently pre­sented a draft bill accord­ing to which, from next January 1st, the horeca chan­nel will be obliged to offer its oils in non-refill­able con­tain­ers. Do you think this mea­sure will suf­fice to guar­an­tee the qual­ity of the table oils? Do you con­sider it fair?

Although I don’t think it’s bad, I am not a staunch defender of this mea­sure, because I don’t think it guar­an­tees the qual­ity of the oils even if these are olive oils. Sometimes oils labelled as extra vir­gins do not actu­ally fall into this cat­e­gory. On the con­trary, at times since they present detectable faults they are sim­ply vir­gin oils or, even worse, lam­pante oils.

And I am not talk­ing about just a few anec­dotic cases, this hap­pens far more often than the sec­tor is will­ing to admit.

This is why I think the mea­sure in ques­tion will just pre­vent other types of oils from being offered, apart from the olive oil in bars and restau­rants. A fact which, on the other hand, is not cur­rently typ­i­cal.

That’s from the consumer’s point of view, but what con­se­quences will this new law have for hote­liers and restau­ra­teurs? And for pro­duc­ers?

To use a some­what exag­ger­ated com­par­i­son, if a row­ing boat doesn’t move for­ward the solu­tion does not lie in whip­ping the slaves more, but rather in human­is­ing their work.

The hostelry sec­tor needs more infor­ma­tion and less cen­sure, although that does not exempt it from meet­ing cer­tain con­trols and com­ply­ing with cer­tain pro­hi­bi­tions that place food safety at risk.
In my case, I am more wor­ried about the oil I don’t see, the oil used in the kitchen. Especially, in fried foods for which the cheap­est fats tend to be used and, if analysed, they would make all of our hair stand on end.

For its part, this law obliges pro­duc­ers to pack in smaller for­mats and some of them will see it as an added cost rather than an oppor­tu­nity to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves.

What do you mean when you say the oils used for fried dishes? What might we find in the fry­ing pans of these types of estab­lish­ment?

Look, in spite of the fact that what I’m going to say may have con­se­quences, it is impor­tant to know that a veg­e­tal fat that is not olive oil breaks down from a cer­tain tem­per­a­ture on. And that depend­ing on the hours of fry­ing time it is sub­jected to, it will gen­er­ate a big­ger or smaller con­cen­tra­tion of ben­zopy­renes, a can­cer­ous sub­stance in con­stant con­tact with the foods that nobody has both­ered to mea­sure or con­trol.

I heard this from a renowned chemist from the olive oil sec­tor a few years ago and even back then it really wor­ried me. By unleash­ing a war between non-refill­able con­tain­ers and oil cruets what we are doing is dis­tract­ing the atten­tion from the real prob­lem. Imagine the amount of olive oil that would be con­sumed in the hostelry sec­tor if it were reg­u­lated in the kitchens.

Have you noticed any dif­fer­ence in the way this prod­uct is dealt with by the more mod­est estab­lish­ments and those oth­ers that are known for their chef’s cook­ing?

A mod­est estab­lish­ment, offer­ing set menus, can pro­vide delights for the senses and, at the same time, raise the pres­tige of the olive oil by know­ing how to use it cor­rectly. On one occa­sion, in a tapas bar in Madrid in the Oporto neigh­bour­hood, they brought me a plate of Italian cheese dressed with an extra vir­gin coupage of Cornicabra and Arbequina. The best part was that the waiter knew the mean­ing of each one of the words giv­ing their name to the dish. A laud­able fact.

Other times, in top class restau­rants I’ve been offered an excel­lent extra vir­gin from the region the owner was from, even though the very same couldn’t tell me what olive vari­etal was cul­ti­vated in his home­land.

So I believe there’s a bit of every­thing, out there, it takes all sorts.

In recent years, Spain has become a world gas­tro­nomic bench­mark. Do you think the major chefs play their role cor­rectly as pre­scribers of this prod­uct?

In gen­eral, I think that these pro­fes­sion­als are still in the learn­ing stage. For many of them, glass pack­ag­ing is a recent nov­elty. Not to men­tion hav­ing to speak about vari­etals, geo­graphic areas or organolep­tic pro­files. Yet, I do believe that they are learn­ing very quickly.

Perhaps this is an under­ly­ing prob­lem, beyond the oils. In the food world, we have allowed the top chefs to become the spokes­peo­ple of an entire chain. And so they talk to you, for instance, about an arti­choke with­out really know­ing whether they are cook­ing a seed­head or a fruit.

The real pro­tag­o­nists of our table are the farm­ers. The major chefs might under­stand about tex­tures, com­bi­na­tions, pre­sen­ta­tions…, but many of them don’t know any­thing about the land, as they have only ever vis­ited a veg­etable patch as tourists.

In your opin­ion, apart from those already men­tioned, what other types of con­trols should oils be sub­jected to? In this sense, could we say that there is fraud in Spain?

In my opin­ion, frauds relat­ing to olive oil are minor, although that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. The mix of oils is closely mon­i­tored, mean­ing there are no adul­ter­ations. This is one thing the con­sumer should feel com­pletely reas­sured about.

Another thing is that, like I said before, some pack­aged oils like extra vir­gins may sim­ply be vir­gins. A sit­u­a­tion which may per­fectly well be moti­vated by poor stor­age con­di­tions in the com­mer­cial cir­cuit, for instance. How often have we bought a white wine that has lost all of its aro­mas or, even is ran­cid when it gets to our table? Nobody makes a fuss about that.

Another seri­ous issue is that of the deodor­ized oils which, for the moment, can only be detected by the tast­ing pan­els. This phe­nom­e­non is very closely related to the exces­sive num­ber of Arbequina plan­ta­tions, as this is a vari­etal that oxi­dizes very eas­ily, induc­ing this type of fraud­u­lent prac­tice.

And what are the deodorised oils?

They are lam­pante oils which are sub­jected to a water vapour based process that elim­i­nates all traces of unpleas­ant fla­vors or smells. The result is a flat oil from an organolep­tic point of view. To be able to sell it, they add a por­tion of extra vir­gin that con­tributes aro­mas.

It is some­times, fraud­u­lently, called extra vir­gin even though it isn’t. It is dif­fi­cult to detect because it does not leave any chem­i­cal traces. Fortunately, it does not pose any health risk, mean­ing the fraud is lim­ited to the labelling.

In spite of every­thing, in our coun­try there are many pro­duc­ers who do every­thing by the book and who raise the qual­ity of our oils to unprece­dented lev­els. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from oth­ers who do not do things the way they should?

Well, it’s like every­thing in life, the dif­fer­ence lies in a love of what they do and a will to improve and progress. The com­pet­i­tive­ness between the com­pa­nies also works in favour of the pro­duc­tion of an excel­lent prod­uct which, on the one hand means it sells bet­ter and, on the other, ben­e­fits the con­sumer for obvi­ous rea­sons.

Finally, lately there has been much talk of inte­gra­tion to improve sales, but I believe in small pro­duc­ers who have more time to pam­per their prod­uct and improve it, and less oppor­tu­ni­ties to cam­ou­flage their errors.

In light of what we have said above, do you believe the price dif­fer­ence between the qual­ity oils and the mediocre oils is jus­ti­fied? What is it that pushes up the price of the prod­uct? What should be the right price?

At present, there is very lit­tle price dif­fer­ence between the good oils and the mediocre oils, to the extent that this dif­fer­ence appears to be based solely on the pack­ag­ing or pre­sen­ta­tion cost.

Nonetheless, what truly increases the prod­uct price is the han­dling of small vol­umes dur­ing the elab­o­ra­tion, stor­age and pack­ag­ing processes. Logically, those pro­duc­ers who han­dle large vol­umes can­not always obtain max­i­mum qual­ity, but rather they also pro­duce lower quan­ti­ties and, even mediocre oils. It doesn’t mat­ter. Each qual­ity must have a cor­re­spond­ing price and we should never for­get that that price is based on a pact between what one side wants to offer and the other side wants to receive.

Prices can never be fair or unfair, con­trary to what we are always hear­ing. What is fair, is that the infor­ma­tion we offer about a prod­uct should be true infor­ma­tion.

Up close and per­sonal

An extra vir­gin: Coupage of Picudo and Hojiblanca.
An olive vari­etal: Manzanilla Cacereña.
An olive grove land­scape: Arribes del Duero.
A restau­rant that pays par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to its olive oil: Casa do Aceite, Lobios (Ourense).
A dish with olive oil: Salmorejo, mmmmm!
A wish for olive oil: For every human being on the planet to try it.

David Marcos Merchán

Born in Madrid on October 30, 1971, he grad­u­ated in Agricultural Engineering from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) in 1995. After work­ing in the orna­men­tal sec­tor for a few years, in 1998 he moved from Madrid to Seville to work in an agro-chem­i­cal com­pany, devel­op­ing prod­ucts for the Andalusian olive grove. Later on, he lived in Córdoba, Toledo, Alcázar de San Juan (Ciudad Real), Abarán (Murcia) and, once again, Madrid.

In 2002, he changed direc­tion and started to work as sales direc­tor in vine and olive plants for Viveros Provedo, a com­pany based in La Rioja with which he con­tin­ues to col­lab­o­rate even today. This posi­tion has allowed him to travel con­stantly through­out all the wine and olive pro­duc­ing areas of our coun­try, while also get­ting to know both sec­tors in depth.

With almost two mil­lion kilo­me­tres through the roads and by-roads of Spain at his back, he feels that the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and expe­ri­ence of the agri­cul­tural engi­neers are not always acknowl­edged by soci­ety.

Married with one daugh­ter, his sec­ond home is in Tunisia. He admits to being in love with Spain, par­tic­u­larly after dis­cov­er­ing its geog­ra­phy vil­lage by vil­lage, with its peo­ples and tra­di­tions.

This arti­cle first appeared in Olivarama mag­a­zine, and has not been edited by Olive Oil Times.

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