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Montsagre: Picual Perfection Among the Empeltre

This is Empeltre territory, an area which comprises the Bajo Aragón region, the Ebro valley and the Terra Alta in Tarragona. It is also home to Albert Barrobés and his family's award-winning Picual.

Albert Barrobés (photo by Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)
Sep. 18, 2018
By Pablo Esparza
Albert Barrobés (photo by Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)

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“I learned every­thing I know in Horta,” Pablo Picasso once said.

The Spanish painter spent two short but key peri­ods of his life in the little vil­lage of Horta de Sant Joan, in the Catalan province of Tarragona, north­east of Spain.

Many land­scapes cap­ti­vate you, but this one, on top of being a cap­ti­vat­ing land­scape, is the land­scape of my roots and of my grand­par­ents.- Albert Barrobés, Montsagre

In the summer of 1898, he was just a six­teen-year-old boy recov­er­ing from a lung dis­ease. In 1909, he came back with his part­ner Fernande Olivier.

The land­scapes of Horta are said to have had an impact on the artist when he was at a cre­ative turn­ing point lead­ing to Cubism.

Large sways of pine forests, vine­yards, olive groves and almond trees dotted with medieval vil­lages and sur­rounded by the impos­ing pres­ence of the Montsagre (lit­er­ally, “sacred moun­tain”), and the ver­ti­cal­ity of the Benet Rocks.

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The Catalan Terra Alta comarca and the adja­cent Aragonese Matarranya share an essen­tial and unspoiled Mediterranean land­scape.



 



Here is where Albert Barrobés and his family pro­duce their Montsagre olive oil where, on assign­ment for Olive Oil Times, I met him at his estate between Horta de Sant Joan and Caseres, a neigh­bor­ing vil­lage.

“Many land­scapes cap­ti­vate you, but this one, on top of being a cap­ti­vat­ing land­scape, is the land­scape of my roots and of my grand­par­ents,” Barrobés explained.

Views from the estate (Pable Esparza for Olive Oil Times))

Barrobés, an archi­tect by pro­fes­sion, speaks with pas­sion about his land and his oil. Son of Catalan emi­grants, he lived a good share of his life in Venezuela. This explains why, when he speaks, he com­bines the local dialect of Catalan and a Spanish with a Caribbean accent.

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“My grand­par­ents worked here until they had to move to Barcelona at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury. My par­ents also migrated to Venezuela. But later on, they came back to meet their roots again,” he said as we walk across his 100-hectare estate where pine forests pleas­antly alter­nate with ter­races of olive groves.

Terres de l’Ebre — the lands of the river Ebro in Catalan — where Horta de Sant Joan is placed, has been a Unesco Reserve of the Biosphere since 2013 due to its com­plex mix of plains, marshes, deltas, moun­tains and val­leys.

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In this place, organic farm­ing, said Barrobés, was a log­i­cal and a voca­tional step. “We have been pro­duc­ing organic for years. And we are very much inter­ested in the sus­tain­abil­ity both of this activ­ity and this envi­ron­ment. Because we are sur­rounded by forests that need to be man­aged with common sense.”

The tech­niques they use for their organic pro­duc­tion are diverse.

Next to the barn where Barrobés keeps his machin­ery, in a field where wheat has already been har­vested, Pyrenean horses graze. “They usu­ally go down the olive groves. They don’t like olive trees sprouts, so they help us con­trol­ling the weeds,” he pointed out.

Horses at the Montsagre estate (Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)

“We also use kaolin, which is a white min­eral, to ‘paint’ the trees so they are less attrac­tive for the flies with­out using pes­ti­cides.”

Montsagre’s estate lies in an area at 530 meters above sea level. Long sun­shine hours and little pre­cip­i­ta­tion lead to a lower pro­duc­tion here com­pared with other Spanish regions.

“This is an alka­line land and there are a lot of rocks under­ground. This, together with the cli­mate we have here, gives us a number of cli­mate and geo­log­i­cal traits that make olives pro­duced here of a very good qual­ity,” Barrobés explained. His organic del­i­cate Picual won a Best in Class Award at the 2018 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition — one of only 16 oils to achieve the dis­tinc­tion among 1,000 con­tenders.

When Albert Barrobés’ father replanted these fields some 30 years ago, he made an unusual deci­sion in this county by plant­ing Picual, a vari­ety typ­i­cal from Jaén, which is the most common in Spain.

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In spite of being out of its “nat­ural” region, the cul­ti­var gives good results in Horta de Sant Joan. However, this is Empeltre ter­ri­tory, an area which com­prises the Bajo Aragón region, the Ebro valley and the Terra Alta in Tarragona.

“These olives have always been much appre­ci­ated as black table olives, but if pressed when olives are still green, we can get an extra­or­di­nary fruity oil,” he told OOT. “For us, Empeltre is an added value because it is basi­cally known just here.”

Not far from Montsagre’s estate, Barrobés takes a detour from the main road to show what he calls one of Horta’s main mon­u­ments: A mon­u­men­tal olive tree called Lo Parot, or “the big father” in Catalan.

More than 8 meters high and a 15-meters perime­ter, this giant has been part of this land­scape for over 2,000 years.

Lo Parot (Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)