In gastronomic terms, autumn here in Andalucia is a hive of activity: chestnuts are gathered and roasted, wild mushrooms are foraged and grilled, and olives and grapes are picked and crushed to yield their juice. In the areas where these products are grown, each village has its own celebration of the harvest; such seasonal foods are an integral part of the local cuisine, culture and economy. It’s not just a fruit, vegetable, or nut. It’s who those people are; what they grow, eat, and sell; what their life revolves around.
Nowhere is this more true than in the province of Jaen, bypassed by most visitors to the region, but famous as the world centre of olive-oil production – 25% of the stuff comes from here. The landscape doesn’t let you forget it – undulating hills with straight lines of trees, soft, stripey fields as far as the eye can see, rising and falling like a gentle sea. Nowhere else is the agricultural identity of an area more clearly visible in its scenery.
On the last puente, my children and I were lucky enough to spend the weekend at a cortijo in Jaen. At the food fair Andalucia Sabor I met a delightful couple, Maria and Juan, who have their own olive oil farm with onsite factory and self-catering accommodation. They invited us to come and stay to see how the olive oil is made, and with a three-day weekend coming up, it was a no-brainer. The season had just got under way, and I wanted to learn about how this kitchen staple is produced – also I had seen Jaen province’s “Come and make your own olive oil” oleoturismo idea. As we drove into the province, these regular, repeated patterns of endless olive trees all around were strangely calming to see. A harmonious feeling of well-ordered nature.
We had arranged to meet at a restaurant in Ubeda, their nearest town. Arriving horribly late, thanks to my usual shocking time-keeping, loo stops, and getting lost in the town, we were welcomed graciously and invited to smell a bottle of their new-season extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), bottled just days previously. The oil, Cortijo Spiritu Santo, is a picual oil, so the olives are green and unripe. What did it remind me of, asked Juan? If a smell can have a colour, this was definitely green: fresh and strong. Newly-cut grass. Plus another zingy, summery aroma – tomatoes.
Then they poured some onto my plate. And guess what colour it was? Bright emerald, creme-de-menthe green – an improbably brillant but natural shade. Indeed, this is an all-natural product – no added colouring, flavouring or other horrors, just 100% pure picual olive juice. And the taste – grassy, peppery and fruity too. A full-on sensory experience. Drizzling this stuff over your food revolutionises its flavour – gives it a whole new lease of life. I tried it on cod, and it worked beautifully, its slightly acid taste matching the fish to perfection. The restaurant, Antique, is one of a handful in Ubeda offering EVOO extras such as olive oil tastings, and special menus whose dishes are matched with specific artesan oils, marked by signs saying “Oleotour“.
The key to this extraordinary oil lies partly, I’m told, in the shortest possible time from fruit to liquid – producing the oil as soon as possible after the olives are picked. Just a few hours in the case of Cortijo Spiritu Santo, as they’re always pressed (not literally, we’ll come to that) the same day. No chemicals are added – the process is purely mechanical. An EVOO is defined as an oil produced mechanically, using a cold process, with specific organoleptic (taste) qualities, and a low acidity (less than 0.8%).
After lunch, we walked around Ubeda, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being wowed by the Renaissance buildings – warm stone glowing golden in the evening sun. It didn’t feel like Andalucia; more like Segovia than Seville. This is a relatively small town, with 35,000 inhabitants, which has one of the best-preserved old quarters I’ve seen in Spain; you can walk round it easily, agog at all the divine stone masterpieces. The parador is one of the finest in the country (left in above photo). The town itself is a little elevated, and from the Mirador you get a sweeping 180-degree view of the surrounding countryside – fields of olive trees stretching across to the Sierra de Cazorla, and dotted with farmhouses, including the Cortijo where we were headed.
Ubeda feels lost in the mists of time – in a good way. As an olive-themed shop-owner whom I spoke to commented, if Ubeda and its near neighbour, Baeza, were more easily accessible (nearest airport at least an hour away, no motorway, no train station), the towns would be as thronged with tourists as Sevilla’s medieval Barrio Santa Cruz, Cordoba’s Juderia or Granada’s Albaicin. Welcome news for visitors who do make it there, as they can walk around without bumping into tour groups every few metres; not so good for the local businesses. A spur motorway linking the town of Bailen, on the main Cordoba-Madrid motorway to the west, with Ubeda, is currently being built. This may change its out-of-the-way status – for the better for most, though not all.
Back to the oil – we visited the local olive oil museum, for the Comarca La Loma, in the upper Guadalquivir valley, the area where Ubeda is situated. The Centro de Interpretacion de Olivar y Aceite is housed in a beautiful 17th-century converted stone storehouse called Casa de la Tercia. Its name comes from the church tithes – everyone had to pay one-tenth of their olive oil harvest, which was divided into three parts (tercia), to fund the building of new churches, the upkeep of existing ones, and other such worthy causes.
The first display, in the entrance, showed all the different by-products from the tree: waste pulp is used as compost; pits and pruned branches become heating pellets; wood is carved into many objects, both practical and decorative; leaves are fed to goats. As well as showing the production methods used in centuries past here in Andalucia (think donkey and conical grindstone), the museum has a 21st-century tasting room and kitchen inaugurated by Dani Garcia.
I loved the models of old fincas, and the cast-iron hydraulic press, which physically crushed the olives between circular mats of esparto grass, called capachos, to filter the oil produced. There’s also a life-size version of a donkey – poor old Platero would have walked round and round in circles all day – with the old crushing table, outside in the patio. Children will love this, as they can see how life was on a finca, until relatively recently.
After leaving Ubeda, we wove our way back down the hill, and then turned off along a track to the farm, watching out for concealed gulleys which allow rainwater to run off – tricky in the dark. The farmhouse is a traditional 17th-century building, with a beautiful stone doorway, and thick walls designed to keep out both heat and cold. It has six bedrooms, including one with bunkbeds, so it’s perfect for family groups to stay in. The sitting room has a big open fire-place, and there’s a well-equipped kitchen with a sizeable table to fit the whole group. For summer, there’s a small swimming pool.
The large enclosed patio is where my daughter spend most of the time, playing with the family’s pet kittens, while my son and Jose, Juan and Maria’s youngest child, shot hoops. Once the children were asleep (finally – bunk beds are made for jumping from one to the other), we took to the patio with a bottle of wine, and Juan filled me in on the story of the cortijo. He lives in a modern house back towards Ubeda, but sometimes stays in the cortijo as it is conveniently right next to the factory.
The farm was left by a lady with no heirs to the church in 1741; a convent in Ubeda bestowed up on it the religious title it bears today. Then, in the 19th century, much of the church’s land was taken away in the desamortizacion – the cortijo was bought and sold until it came into the hands of Juan’s father in the 1980s, and he and Maria took it on last year. Both of their grandparents worked in the olive fields. Los olivos are in their blood, part of their cultural identity. They’re part of a growing group of artesanal producers.
This is a small-scale farm, with 100 hectares and 6000 trees; some of these are over 300 years old, while others were planted by Juan and his father. Often you see two or three trees growing together, as several are planted together in case some don’t take root. They need 10kg of picual olives to make each litre of the green EVOO, unlike the “golden” varieties, which only need 5kg. The farm produces 30,000 litres per year.
The next day, after a breakfast of tostadas drenched with their delectable EVOO, we went out into the fields to see where the story begins: the olives being harvested. The fruit is shaken off the tree by a crazy little machine, which clasps the trunk with its metal claw and vibrates it vigorously so the leaves and branches shake manically and the fruit falls to the ground.
Men with sticks help by bashing the branches too, and the olives are collected on the ground in big black nets, which are dragged from tree to tree. These are then emptied into larger white tarpaulins, which in turn are lifted and emptied into trucks and taken to the factory. This farm has its own mill to produce oil, so that the olives are still in optimum state when processed – it’s just hours from when they fall from the branches until the unctuous green liquid appears.
Next stop was the factory, with its conveyor belt – the olives arrive from lorry, are deposited on slats, have their leaves blown off, and are carried to a big grinder which crushes them into a thick paste – pits (they have important nutrients), skins and all. This is then sent to the “batidora” (literally blender) for 30 minutes, where it is heated and slowly churned so that the small olive oil droplets can agglomerate, a process called malaxing.
Then the paste is passed to an industrial decanter (called centrifugadora), a horizontal drum machine which spins at high speed – water is added to help draw the oil from the pulp, with the two liquids separating according to their densities. The orujo (waste pulp) is sent to be treated and reused as fertiliser, while the pits are made into pellets for heating the olive mill, and left over sold.
After this, the separated liquids are passed through a vertical centrifuge, which completes the process, ensuring that all remaining water is removed from the oil, and vice versa. The good stuff pours out and is send to huge vats to be filtered and bottled.
The cortijo’s eco-commitment also extends to the ground under the trees: whereas most farmers cut the grass to keep their land as low-maintenance as possible, Maria and Juan prefer to allow it to grow naturally, to protect the soil from erosion by the rain. They use compost made from orujo, leaves and twigs. In fact, they’re going to put sheep to graze there.
That day we also made a trip to Baeza, the other Renaissance jewel in Jaen province, where Juan was doing a tasting. This tiny town of 7000 inhabitants also had its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of its buildings, with their detailed, extravagant facades, are reminscent of Salamanca – the Palacio de Jabalquinto, like those in the northern town, are used as university buildings. Sevillano poet Antonio Machado taught in the university here for several years.
While Baeza matches up to its near neighbour Ubeda in terms of architectual value, some of the eating establishments aren’t as clued-up about the artesan EVOO scene as Ubeda’s.
This weekend was the perfect combination of nature, being in the middle of an unbroken landscape of olivos; gastronomy, tasting top-grade olive oil; and culture, with the twin Renaissance towns. I learned lots about olive oil production, and a little about tasting the oil, which will be built on with my first-ever olive oil cata this week – watch this space!
Antique Restaurant, calle Real, 25, 23400 Úbeda, Jaen. Tel 953 75 76 18
Centro de Interpretacion Olivar y Aceite Comarca de la Loma, calle Corredera de San Fernanco 32, 23400 Ubeda, Jaen. Tel 953 755 889. Open Monday to Sunday.
Cortijo Spiritu Santo, Apdo 217, 23400 Ubeda, Jaen. Tel 953 776 256. Juan and Maria offer self-catering accommodation in the cortijo, and also give tours of the farm and mill as part of Jaen’s “oleotourism” programme.