Spain's Olive Oil Ambition: To Be the World's Best

The world’s top producer wants to be the best, not just the biggest. They’re on track.

Photo: Hannah Howard for Olive Oil Times
By Hannah Howard
Dec. 11, 2018 12:54 UTC
Photo: Hannah Howard for Olive Oil Times

Spain is a giant in the olive oil world. The coun­try pro­duces almost half of the world’s olive oil, more than three times as much as Italy, Greece or Tunisia. Over 250 mil­lion olive trees grow in Spain.

Our father thought we were crazy. But this is the way for­ward.- Manuel Jimenez, Oleícola San Francisco

Spanish olive oil is noth­ing new: pro­duc­tion in the Iberian Peninsula dates back to the sec­ond mil­len­nium B.C. and archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence shows that Andalusia was the major olive oil sup­plier for the Roman Empire.

But over the last 25 years, and espe­cially dur­ing the last decade, the world of Spanish olive oil is chang­ing.

See Also:NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition Winners by Country

In the past, the coun­try was known for sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity for quan­tity. Much of the oil, sold in bulk to Italy, was blended with oil from other Mediterranean coun­tries and mar­keted as a prod­uct of Italy.” Spain also made huge amounts of lam­pante oil,” a grade of olive oil not suit­able for human con­sump­tion until it is processed to make refined cook­ing oil.

No longer. Spain’s olive pro­duc­ers and bot­tlers have invested in excel­lence, from new har­vest­ing prac­tices to state-of-the-art machin­ery. Their goal is to chal­lenge the assump­tion that Italian oil is the finest and firmly estab­lish Spanish extra vir­gin olive oils among the best in the world.

Spain cul­ti­vates hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars of olives, but the most com­mon vari­eties are Picual, Hojiblanca, Arbequina and Cornicabra.

Nearly every region in the coun­try makes olive oil, but the south of Spain is defined by olives. In Jaén, in north­east­ern Andalusia, olive trees stretch all the way to the hori­zon. The region pro­duces more than 40 per­cent of the olive oil in Spain and about 20 per­cent of the global sup­ply.

Jaén’s Oleícola San Francisco, a small oil mill in a tiny town called Begíjar, was built in 1927. José Jimenez bought Oleícola San Francisco in 1989 and today his son Manuel over­sees the fac­tory with his brother, José Jr. It wasn’t until ten years ago that Manuel and José Jr. sought to trans­form the fac­tory into a place that focused on the qual­ity of pro­duc­tion rather than quan­tity. Our father thought we were crazy,” Manuel told me dur­ing a visit to the mill in November. But this is the way for­ward.”

Manuel Jimenez

The two broth­ers orches­trated a major ren­o­va­tion of the facil­i­ties. The for­mer method of pro­duc­tion con­sol­i­dated olives which sat in bar­rels for a long time, dam­ag­ing the fruit before press­ing. Thermal mix­ers destroyed much of the pleas­ant aro­mas and fla­vors that an extra vir­gin olive oil needs. Olive oil lan­guished in tanks, where it began to degrade.

Today, 400 farm­ers bring their olives to Oleícola San Francisco. (The fam­ily-owned busi­ness also cul­ti­vates their own 130 acres of olive groves in Jaén.) Producing olive oil is always a race against time. Oleícola San Francisco pro­duced 70,000 kilos (154,000 pounds) of olive oil on a busy day. That’s a large pro­duc­tion for most of the world, but a small pro­duc­tion for Jaén,” said Manuel.

The olives go from the trucks to the mill, where they are trans­formed into olive oil, then into the bot­tles within mere hours. Carefully con­trolled tem­per­a­tures and three-phase cen­trifu­gal decanters are just a part of the state-of-the-art sys­tem that is cre­ated to pro­duce the best oil pos­si­ble.

Quality is about the fruit, which must be fresh and healthy, and the process, which must be clean and fast,” explained Manuel. It sounds sim­ple, but it’s not easy.” A focus on qual­ity takes a lot of work for only a small return in profit. According to Manuel, pro­duc­ers sell lam­pante for €2.50 per liter and extra-vir­gin olive oil for €3/liter. That half a euro con­ceals a huge dif­fer­ence in time, labor, and care.

I think Spain will soon over­take Italy as the largest exporter of bot­tled olive oil in the world,” Eusebio García de la Cruz, owner and co-founder of García de la Cruz, told Olive Oil Times. We are the largest pro­ducer with a huge dif­fer­ence and I believe that the per­cep­tion of the qual­ity of Spanish oils is also improv­ing. But there is a long way to go in many aspects.”


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