A guide to Spanish Olive Oil

by Ainhoa Barrio - 26 November 2013

spanish-olive-oilFood writer, Ainhoa Barrio, tells us why Spanish olive oil is such an important part of the country's cuisine and culture....

Olive oil has been used in the Mediterranean basin since ancient times. It is believed that the domestication of the olive tree originated in Asia Minor at first and then spread to the surrounding Mediterranean countries.

The Phoenicians, trading from Carthage in the 8th Century BC, brought the culture of growing the olive tree to Spain. The olive oil industry in Spain now accounts for 40% of the world's olive oil production.

The many benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been discussed, talked about and agreed upon by most nutritionists and chefs. The diet includes a high consumption of olive oil, fruits and vegetables; a moderate ingest of fish, wine and dairy products; and a low consumption of meat.

One of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil. Used for its versatility as well as its health benefits, it is still considered a fat but it has low acidity, no cholesterol and it helps to aid digestion.

spanish-olives

What most people are unaware of, are the vast array of olive oil varieties that can be found in Spain.

Just like with wine, the flavours of Spanish olive oil differ based on the variety of olives being used, the time of the year when they are harvested, and the way they are processed.

If the olive is harvested early in the season, between November and December, and it is picked when it is still green in colour, it will generally have a stronger, slightly bitter taste.

If it is harvested in January and the olive has matured and turned black, it will have a sweeter, smoother taste. But all this depends on the variety of olive being collected.

The main olive varieties grown in Spain are:

  • Arbequina: The olive is harvested just before it is fully matured and the olive oil is medium green in colour with a fruity, slightly bitter but also sweet flavour.
  • Picual: Half of the olives cultivated in Spain belong to this variety. The olives are full bodied and bitter with a woody flavour.
  • Hojiblanca: This variety offers a good range of flavours during the tasting process: sweet at first, followed by fresh green tones and ending with an almond and spice aftertaste.
  • Picudo: A fragrant olive oil with fresh fruit and almond flavours.
  • Cornicabra: Made of mature olives, harvested at the end of the season; it has a golden colour with green highlights. The flavour is sweet at first and bitter towards the end, sometimes with a touch of avocado.
  • Empeltre: A very smooth oil, pale yellow in colour, which presents a very sweet taste, slightly fruity and with almond flavours.
  • Manzanilla: Renowned as one of the best olive oils in Spain. Rich, full-bodied, green coloured and with strong apple, grass and banana flavours.
  • Coupage: Not a variety of olives in itself, but a mixture of two or more of the varieties mentioned above.

Depending on the processing of the olives, Spanish olive oil will be classified into the following categories:

  • Virgin extra Olive Oil: This is the best quality oil. It is pressed using only mechanical instruments, no chemicals or additives. It maintains all its health properties and flavour qualities. It must be below 0.8% acidity and present no sensorial flaws. This is often described as pure juice of the olive.
  • Virgin Olive Oil: Also pressed exclusively through mechanical procedures. It doesn't qualify as Extra because it presents some kind of sensorial flaw. Its acidity must be below 2%.
  • Olive Oil: Simple Spanish olive oil is the result of mixing virgin oil with refined oils. It is no longer considered the juice of the olive, but it is still good for cooking.

Most households in Spain use standard olive oil for cooking and frying. The use of Virgin and specially Extra Virgin Olive oil is reserved for salad dressings, and marinades; or to make cheese, tuna or anchovy conserves.

Olive oil is rich in vitamin E and antioxidants so it is very good for skincare, either ingested or applied directly on the skin. It is used in the cosmetics industry to create hydrating creams, soaps, and as a lubricant for massages.

It is also good for the digestive system as it regulates the acidity, and it helps assimilate calcium to strengthen the bones.

The different oil producing regions in Spain are now offering oil tasting visits to savour the subtleties between the different varieties. The main areas of production are in Andalucía, but there are some excellent Spanish olive oil producers in the northern provinces of Aragon and Lleida as well.

Next time you plan a visit to Spain you should not miss the opportunity of including an olive oil tasting.

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