Olives and olive oil are a special part of Spanish cuisine.
In visits to Barcelona, I’ve enjoyed seeing the colorful displays of olives in markets and sampling olives as tapas in cafés. Olive oil is part of many Mediterranean dishes, from pasta to pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato and seasoned with olive oil, pepper and garlic).
Spain grows 300 kinds of olives — 350 million olives each year.
Spending a day on an olive oil tour in the Providence of Tarragona was a great way to learn what is involved in growing olives and producing olive oil.
Our guided tour started with a two-hour drive from Barcelona to the village of Cabacés to visit the olive grove and olive oil mill of Ferran Miro and Neus Cubells. The couple’s families have worked in the olive groves for ten generations. Their two sons are involved in the business, too.
When we arrived, we admired the massive olive trees near the building where the olives were processed. Some of the trees are more than a thousand years old.
Collecting olives from these ancient trees requires either hand picking the olives or raking the branches with a olive harvest rake, combing the trees’ olive-filled branches.
A tree shaker is the newer technique for olive harvesting. Covering is placed under the tree to catch the olives. The tree shaker is attached to the tree and shakes off the olives. But the tree shaker can’t be used on the ancient trees because they are too brittle.
The husband lamented that some olive growers are cutting down the old trees and replacing them with new trees that can be harvested with tree shakers.
He drove us on dirt roads that wound past the olive groves of dozens of families. Many of the groves are grown on terraced plots to maximize growing on the steep hillsides.
The harvested olives are transported to the family’s olive mill for processing. The olives ranged from green to light red to maroon, depending on how ripe the olives were.
Processing the olives
Today, their olive oil mill system includes metal grinders and presses. The early processing involved large grinding stones. He led us through the mill, explaining the process (with the assistance of our tour guide who translated). The racks of large plastic containers of olive oil that are sold to their local customers.
Sampling olive oil
After seeing the olive oil processing, we drove to the historical olive press and mill for olive oil testing and lunch.
Neus Cubells showed us how to use special tasting glasses to sample olive oil.
She poured a small amount of olive oil into the blue tasting glasses. The glasses were blue rather than clear so that the sampler’s assessment of the olive oil isn’t impacted by the color of the oil.
We used our hands to warm the glass, heating the olive oil and releasing its fragrance. We lifted the the small lid on the glass to smell the fragrance and then sample the olive oil.
We sampled each of the three olive oils they produce – Cavaloca, Arrels and Mesae.
Each olive oil is blended for different uses – fish dishes, meat dishes, salads and even a special dessert of dark chocolate cups filled with olive oil and topped with sea salt.
I’m definitely using more olive oil in my cooking and appreciating its health qualities and the work involved in making olive oil.
I do carefully read the labels on olive oil bottles — selecting extra virgin cold pressed (not treated with chemicals or created with heat) and selecting a brand that is made from olives from Spain.
Check the Miro Cubells website for information about tours.