It is "characterized by the intensity of its fruitiness and the balance of its attributes ... with a degree of astringency." A white from Alsace, perhaps, or a red from Burgundy? No, much heavier. These tasting notes are for the liquid that transforms a lettuce or a tomato or a hunk of fresh bread into tastebud bliss: extra virgin olive oil. A fluid that would be irresistible even if it were bad for us but which, as medical researchers confirm, has the salutary side-effect of acting as a barrier to conditions from cholesterol to cancers.
These particular notes refer to a brand called Olivalle, a standout in a recent tasting of 14 Spanish olive oils. None is famous beyond Spain, the world's biggest producer, but all share a quality that is capturing the attention of oil aficionados around Europe. They are not only extra virgin meaning best-quality, cold-pressed pure juice of the olive they are also ecological: no insecticides, herbicides or artificial fertilizers are used to grow the olives.
Olivalle is made by a cooperative called Olivarera, based in Pozoblanco, a town in a hilly region called Los Pedroches, in the north of Andalusia. Olivarera takes "ecological" so seriously that its pressing machinery and stainless steel tanks are in buildings where the appropriately green "paint" is actually a special nontoxic resin, to ensure that nothing contaminates or flavors the virgin oil. The plant's energy comes from a fuel that looks like brown coal dust but is far cleaner: pulverized olive pips.
Ecological, organic and green still conjure small-plot, hobby agriculture. Yet the Olivarera co-op has 504 members and revenues of $5 million, and last year it produced 1.3 million liters of oil. President Luis Gonzalo Blanco believes the co-op's total of 9,000 hectares is Europe's biggest single "green" farm project. "Going ecological started almost as a romantic idea back in 1995," he says, "and it has turned into commercial success."
To get more than 500 Spanish farmers to agree that the sky is blue would be hard enough, but to get them to go green? Blanco says that when the idea was first mooted there was lots of, ah, discussion. But today only about 200 of the co-op's 700 members still produce conventional olives, which are processed by separate machinery. Each year more go ecological, a label granted only after three years of inspections of their soil, trees and olives to confirm no trace of herbicides, insecticides or nonorganic fertilizer.
They are encouraged by subsidies for ecological farming about $2,500 a year for each property via the European Union and Spanish authorities. A bigger incentive is the realization that consumers will pay a premium for the green guarantee. A liter of bulk conventional oil at the factory door brings about $1.50 in the current, oversupplied, Spanish market; an ecological liter sells for about $2.35. Most of Olivarera's customers are outside Spain, and its best markets are in Germany and Switzerland.
The terrain of the Los Pedroches area also favored the move to ecological oil. The trees on its steep hillsides have to be pruned and harvested by hand; getting machinery and sprays up the slopes is difficult and expensive. Most important, however, has been the growers' pride in their stunningly beautiful groves, more than half of which are small around 10 hectares. Many of their trees are over 150 years old and have been passed down through the generations. This attachment to the hard hills has helped one of the co-op's key staff, agricultural engineer Juan Antonio Caballero, to convince growers to act to preserve what they've got. For example, to control grass and weed growth by managed grazing of sheep and horses rather than with herbicides or constant plowing, both of which cause serious soil loss from runoff. "My degree has a hidden subject called agricultural psychology," Caballero says with a smile.
One of his victories has been against Bactrocera oleae, the olive fly, which can devastate a harvest and which used to be fought with insecticides. Today, about one tree in three has a plastic bottle hanging from a branch. Inside is mix of water and ammonia sulphate. It attracts the olive fly to enter the bottle, via 5-mm holes near the neck, and there it drowns. Caballero says the system is cheap, it doesn't harm other insects, and fly damage last year was a mere 3%. He's now experimenting with organic composts, the main ingredient waste pulp from the pressing. "The whole project has a lot to do with enabling people to see that this way works both economically and environmentally," says Caballero.
An example of the Pozoblanco community's backing for the cooperative is found in one of the town's restaurants, the Capri. The main courses are excellent, but the best bit comes at the end: the vanilla ice cream de la casa. It's made with the co-op's extra virgin olive oil. Ecological. And scrumptious.