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A guiri's guide to extra virgin olive oil

A guiri's guide to extra virgin olive oil
/ SALVADOR SALAS
  • While large-scale production of the golden liquid remains a Spanish affair, many foreigners also produce their own

  • This year promises to be a bumper one for olive oil production thanks to the wet spring followed by a mild summer and good rainfall in autumn too

With a large foreign population, it is of little surprise then that Malaga and Granada are also home to a number of Brits and other nationalities who have turned their hand to one of the region's key industries: olive oil.

Olive oil cooperatives such as Mondrón, near Periana, and San Sebastián, in Puente don Manuel, both claim to have a dozen or so non-Spanish members and some people even produce their own.

Francisco Alcántara, manager at the Cooperativa San José Artesano-Aceites Mondrón says they have "about 10 foreigners" on the books, although "in reality only three or four regularly bring us olives". It is a similar story at the San Sebastián cooperative, where president, José Enrique Luque Martín, has worked for 26 years. He has been president for 16 years, which is the same time that British resident Graham Stevens has been taking his hand-picked olives. The two have struck up a friendship, despite neither speaking each other's languages fluently, but can communicate when it comes to olives!

"They are very welcoming at the cooperative. I take the olives down, get them weighed and a sample goes off to a laboratory in Torrox to check for the quality," explains Graham, who adds that he "wouldn't get" his olive oil from anywhere else and that his son, who lives in Barcelona, often comes down to visit and to buy the oil to take back home with him.

A bumper year

The olive-picking season starts in November and continues until April. According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development ministry of the regional government, the Junta de Andalucía, the rainy spring, combined with summer temperatures remaining relatively low, mean that the 2018-2019 harvest is expected to result in a 6.7 per cent increase on 2017-2018 and be 20 per cent higher than the average over the last five years in Malaga (and an incredible 51 per cent and 26 per cent respectively in Granada). This positive forecast is reflected by English olive grower, Roberta Gordon-Smith, who produces her own olive oil in the Lecrín valley in Granada, who says she is expecting a "bumper crop" in February.

There has been so much interest among foreigners in the production of olive oil, as well as the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, that the Riogordo olive oil cooperative will be giving its second tour and talk in English in February. Last year the event was full and this year, Dr Simon Poole, author of The Olive Oil Diet, will be flying in from the UK to speak at the event. He has been described by his peers as "the most passionate advocate of the Mediterranean diet and a tireless ambassador for good quality olive oil".

The virtues of extra virgin olive oil are widely extolled and the varieties of olive numerous. Whether they're growing Verdial de Vélez and Nevadillo Blanco varieties in the Axarquía, Lechín olives in Ronda and parts of Granada, Hojiblanca olives in Antequera, or the Manzanilla Aloreña in the Valle del Guadalhorce and Sierra de las Nieves, the chances are that there are not just Spanish olive oil producers, but foreigners who have decided to turn their hand to this most Andalusian of trades.

"If I am offered advice from the locals, I take it"

Garret and Jacqueline Kilner Owners, El Rancho

Jacqueline, Garret and Jacqueline's father, Malcolm.

Jacqueline, Garret and Jacqueline's father, Malcolm.G. Kilner

Garret and Jacqueline Kilner have been farming olives for almost 14 years at their home, El Rancho, in Villanueva del Trabuco. As well as the three acres of olive trees, they run a holiday home and have horses.

Garret, 55, who is from Surrey, says that while at first the idea of picking their own olives seemed "very romantic" he and his family soon learned that it was "really hard work", so while they still do a lot of it on their own, they also employ two local men to help them during the harvest.

On average they collect three to four thousand kilos per year, from 120 mature olive trees. Garret explains that they have Picual olives, which give a "distinctive peppery taste", different from the milder Hojiblanca olives, which is what he says is the main variety in the area.

They belong to a local cooperative to which they send most of their produce, keeping some for their own use and to give to guests, which goes to a local cold press. Garret says that he is "very open to any advice" he is given by local people.

"Some of our neighbours come from generations of olive farmers and I don't look a gift horse in the mouth. If I am given advice by someone who knows what they are talking about, I take it," he says, adding, "anyone who has picked olives will know it's hard work."

"We're hoping for a bumper crop this year"

Roberta Gordon-Smith AgrEcoArt

Roberta Gordon-Smith.

Roberta Gordon-Smith. / THERESAODETTESIEDNERTOSPHOT

Roberta Gordon-Smith, who owns the El Casino art gallery in Salobreña, also harvests her own olives and produces a "limited supply" of cold-pressed olive oil as part of her AgroEcoArt venture, which combines traditional agricultural practices with sustainability and making art.

This year she explains that she harvested some in mid-December and is hoping for a "bumper crop" in February.

Roberta, who is originally from Derbyshire, describes the Lechín variety, native to Granada, as "small black olives which are very rich and peppery initially and smooth out as the year goes by".

In a blind tasting she held with chefs, hoteliers and owners of restaurants in Kingston in London (where she lived before moving to Spain), she said her product beat Greek, Italian and French oils.

"I love being outdoors and working on the land"

Graham at work picking olives.

Graham at work picking olives. / J. Rhodes

Graham Stevens Olive grower

Graham and Margaret Stevens have lived in their house near Alcaucín for 16 years and their three acres of land already had around 70 established olive trees on it when they bought it. Graham, who is from Cardiff, explains that while in their first year they employed local people to pick the olives, he has done it ever since.

"I love being outdoors and working on the land, it gives me something to do," says the 74-year-old. He picks all of the olives by hand and does it five days a week, morning and afternoon, during picking season.

The couple are members of the San Sebastián olive oil cooperative at Puente don Manuel.

"You have to be part of a cooperative and you must take your paperwork each time you go," explains Graham, who was left partially sighted by a stroke three years ago. His sight is gradually coming back and he says that being able to go and pick olives has helped him on the road to recovery, along with his other passion: golf.

He says he can speak enough Spanish to have a chat with José Enrique, the president of the cooperative, who in turn says that there are "a handful" of other foreigners who are also members and who take olives to the mill, although he says that Graham is his most regular non-Spanish client.

"If we're lucky we get help from friends and guests"

June and Clive Wolfe Cortijo los Lobos

June and Clive Wolfe have been producing their own olive oil for about six years. The couple moved from the UK to Villanueva del Trabuco with their three children, then aged nine, 11 and 12, 19 years ago, "to give them a better quality of life and more freedom", explains June. They had no plans to grow olives, but started to plant olive trees to "give some structure to the garden".

Clive deposits the olives at his local mill.

Clive deposits the olives at his local mill. / Clive and June Wolfe

They now have 11 trees, which produce roughly 300 kilos of olives, which they hand pick as there are too many plants under the trees to put nets down. "If we're lucky we get some help from guests or friends, but generally we do it ourselves over a three-day period," explains June.

From their olives they get approximately 50 litres of olive oil, which they use themselves and also sell to guests who stay at their 'cortijo' for horseriding holidays.

"It was only about six years ago that we heard of a local olive pressing company where you can take your own olives, watch them go in to the machine and watch your own oil coming out the other end," explains June.

She adds that it is completely organic as they just use the manure from their horses to fertilise twice a year. "We find it a very satisfying process," she concludes.