Peru Rediscovers Its Own Olive Oils

Peru has a centenary tradition of olive cultivation which started in the colonial period but was soon interrupted. In the last decades, the spotlight on gastronomy and Peruvian cuisine has created a renewed interest in domestic olive oil production.

Chef Virgilio Martínez
Aug. 22, 2018
By Rosa Gonzalez-Lamas
Chef Virgilio Martínez

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The trans­for­ma­tion of olive oil pro­duc­tion in Perú and the inter­est gen­er­ated by Peruvian cui­sine in the last two decades have helped drive more atten­tion towards a domes­tic olive oil indus­try.

Cooks, mixol­o­gists, som­me­liers, and servers must be trained to pro­mote our domes­tic olive oils as a culi­nary expres­sion of Perú’s bio­di­ver­sity.- Gianfranco Vargas Flores

Perú has a cen­te­nary tra­di­tion of olive cul­ti­va­tion which started when olive trees were brought from Spain in 1560 and planted to obtain oil for reli­gious rit­u­als and the lamps illu­mi­nat­ing the churches. The trees adapted quickly to the country’s cli­mate and topo­graphic con­di­tions, espe­cially those of the Southern coastal val­leys, from Ica to Tacna.

The reli­gious dimen­sion pre­dom­i­nated in the cen­turies that fol­lowed when olive oil pro­duc­tion for human con­sump­tion was lim­ited and arti­sanal, and olivi­cul­ture basi­cally restricted to mis­sion­ar­ies and the country’s upper classes.

The impor­tance of Perú’s Viceroyalty as the axis of Spain’s colo­nial power in South America was instru­men­tal in olive cul­ti­va­tion. Oils attained such a good qual­ity that in the 17th cen­tury the Spanish Crown deter­mined to erad­i­cate olive groves and oil pro­duc­tion in Perú because of the com­pe­ti­tion it rep­re­sented to olive oils imported from Spain.

Peruvian olive oil pro­duc­tion decreased there­after. Olives from the trees which remained were not processed for oil but rather con­sumed as table olives. Initially a culi­nary del­i­cacy, table olives later became a key com­po­nent of Peruvian gas­tron­omy as sil­vi­cul­ture pro­gressed.

In the 20th cen­tury olive oil pro­duc­tion was actively resumed. In the 21st, the inter­est in Peruvian cui­sine has exploded con­tribut­ing to a reeval­u­a­tion of local cul­ture and the improve­ment of the qual­ity of domes­tic olive oils.

Chef Gastón Acurio served as dri­ving force of a move­ment that height­ened Peruvian fla­vors and recov­ered ingre­di­ents as pil­lars of this new culi­nary boom with tremen­dous media expo­sure. Projects such as Mistura, a mul­ti­tudi­nous gas­tro­nomic event, were born, becom­ing impor­tant forums for the pro­mo­tion of local foods includ­ing olive oil.

Specialized pro­duc­tion, the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of work­ers, and large invest­ments to improve agrar­ian and indus­trial facil­i­ties con­tributed to the improve­ment of Peruvian olive oil qual­ity, as well as to larger yields. Perú now is one the largest olive oil pro­duc­ers and exporters in South America.

Olive oil qual­ity has def­i­nitely improved, but there is room for fur­ther improve­ment,” affirmed Gianfranco Vargas Flores, a Peruvian researcher, olive expert and oil pro­ducer.

Toward this end and to pre­serve iden­tity, in 2016 Perú started a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary research project that pur­sues the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the country’s olive her­itage through an inven­tory of the country’s old­est liv­ing olive trees.

Most of Perú’s olive orchards were planted in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. Criolla or Peruvian Sevilla — a muta­tion of the first olive vari­eties imported to the coun­try — is the most impor­tant local olive cul­ti­var, occu­py­ing 85 per­cent of the country’s olive plan­ta­tions, most of which are con­cen­trated in Tacna.

Olive oil con­sump­tion in Perú increases on a yearly basis but can grow more. Vargas noted that most new sales are made at drug­stores and nat­ural prod­uct stores, sug­gest­ing health is an impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion for Peruvian con­sumers.

Table olives remain impor­tant in regional cuisines, both tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary, and domes­tic olive oils are gain­ing atten­tion from awards received in inter­na­tional oil com­pe­ti­tions and also because of their use by renowned chefs.

At Señorío de Sulco, Chef Flavio Solórzano uses oils from cen­te­nary trees, whose Criolla vari­ety was picked at dif­fer­ent stages of ripeness, pro­duc­ing diverse oils,” indi­cated Vargas. A fan of olive oil and a pro­moter of local prod­ucts, Chef Virgilio Martínez, from the top restau­rant Central, switched his Spanish for Peruvian EVOO once the qual­ity of the lat­ter improved.

According to Vargas, over 60 olive oil brands are reg­is­tered in Perú, although just ten are well known.

Cooks, mixol­o­gists, som­me­liers, and servers must be trained to pro­mote our domes­tic olive oils as a culi­nary expres­sion of Perú’s bio­di­ver­sity,” indi­cated Vargas, who has been con­duct­ing tast­ings and train­ing among som­me­liers and culi­nary arts schools to make them famil­iar with the organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics of local olive oils.





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