“As soon as you pluck the olive, the clock starts ticking,” says Alfonso. “You have only 24 hours to process it into olive oil”.
Entering the cooperative’s farmhouse, you’re immediately struck by the glossy odour of olive oil, and the trophy cases filled with awards, certificates, medals, and of course bottles of the gold liquid itself.
For the local community, Almazaras de la Subbética success is more than just window-dressing – it’s vital. “This is so important to my village,” Alfonso explains. “Without it, people like me would leave. The cooperative has an export department, a marketing department, so we stay. Half the village works here.”
We taste some from the tap. A fruity, creamy flavour, with a peppery – almost spicy – accent. With a breezy, grassy aroma, it’s so much more complex than regular store-bought stuff.
“Now you can see why we love it!” Alfonso winks.
Córdoba is Spain’s olive oil larder. Over 300,000 people work in the industry. The oils they produce routinely scoop up award after award. And not only is olive oil economically important, it’s also intrinsic to its culture and gastronomy.
Strangely enough, olive trees aren’t endemic to the region. They first arrived with the Phoenecians. But it was the Romans who really understood the olive’s potential to the region. They planted huge groves of olive trees on an industrial scale. Baetica, as they called it (whose traces can be found in names like ‘Subbética and football club Real Betis), became the hub of olive oil production, not just for Spain but for the entire Roman world. Amphorae inscribed with the names of Baetican estates have been excavated in Rome, proving that the capital’s citizens doused their bread in Spanish olive oil. The EU would’ve been proud.
Today, Andalucía is home to no fewer than four PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin), an indicator of quality used to prove that a product has been made with certain ingredients and methods. As well as maintaining quality, Córdoba’s local farms are also pushing the boundaries of sustainability.
“When we started back in the 1980s, people called us crazy because we didn’t use herbicides or pesticides. Now they are all trying to be more like us,” says Rafael Gálvez, founder of Luque Ecológico, a cooperative a few miles away from Almazaras.
For Rafa, crafting olive oil is a blend of art and science. Deciding when to harvest is key. While you get the best oil harvesting earlier in the season (in October), you also get less quantity. Conversely, the longer you leave the olive on the tree, the more oil you get – but the quality decreases.
“It’s very important, being in contact with the soil,” Rafa continues. “Everything we do, we try to be as environmentally conscious as possible.”
That’s why they use every part of the olive. Olive leaf mulching covers the ground around the trees, improving the soil, preventing weeds from growing, and making the track smoother for machines. They use the water for irrigation. And they burn the olive pit to heat the entire complex.
“In 2008, we began measuring carbon footprint,” Rafa explains. “We were making 1.1kg of CO2 per litre. Now we’re absorbing 10kg per litre, making us carbon negative. We’ve gone from emitting CO2 to taking it in. We’ve used organic leaves to fertilise the soil, changing our transport, and installing solar panels. Now we’re EPD qualified (Environmental Product Declaration) measuring CO2 emissions alongside 14 other standards.”
It’s working. Not only is Luque Ecológico extremely progressive, it also produces some of the best olive oil on the planet. Its oils routinely win gold and silver awards at taste tests.
Rafa takes us out into the hills to show us the harvesting. Four workmen hassle an olive tree, one of them using an electric prong which vibrates like a frightened rake. The sky is iron-coloured. As the first drops of fat rain fall, the workmen speed up. They can’t harvest in the rain, as it ferments the fruit.
But for Rafa, even the rain reminds him of something positive. “Next we’re creating a reservoir so that we can use less water.”
With so much olive oil produced, it’s no wonder that a lot of it ends up in Andalucía’s cooking. Many traditional dishes are made with the stuff. In Baena, chef Luis demonstrates the making of Salmorejo. A richer, creamier kind of gazpacho, Salmorejo is so popular here that the supermarkets sell it in tetra pak cartons, like milk. Tomatoes are blended with crusty bread, garlic, vinegar, and of course extra virgin olive oil.
“The oil changes both the flavour and texture, so it must be added slowly,” says Luis, pouring a bottle of extra virgin into the bowl with one hand, and gesticulating for emphasis with the other.
While we’re waiting, we whet our appetites with bread and olive oil. Three kinds sit in front of us, showcasing the three most important olives of Córdoba: picuda, hojiblanco, and picual. One of them has a sharp zinginess, almost like green apples; another has the floral pep of fragrant tomatoes. All of them are spicy, intense, and very moreish.
At last, the salmorejo is ready. Finished with shaved egg and sprinkled with bursts of crimson jamón ibérico, Luis’s salmorejo is a deeply satisfying bowl of warmth and umami sunshine. I scoop the last drops with a bread roll, savouring the acidic vigour of the tomatoes, the grassy cleanness of the oil. It’s followed by remojon, a Mozárabe dish with fig bread, bacalao, orange salad, topped once more with shaved egg. The recipe dates from the 11th century.
Just as these dishes have been passed down through the generations, so too have the olives in them. In Córdoba’s centre is Nunez de Prado, a molino (mill) that’s been producing olive oil since 1795. They’re one of very few olive mills left that maintain the traditional milling processes.
Traditionally, the olives are crushed with rotating grind stones. Shaped like giant spinning tops, three of them sit silently in Nunez de Prado’s farmhouse. Then, the olives are sandwiched between layers of hessian mats, before being pressured by a hydraulic machine, squeezing out the oil. Hence: first press and second press.
“You need more people to work them – around 22 – and they need to be working constantly,” explains Antonio, our guide to Nunez de Prado. The olives are picked eight miles away in neighbouring Baena, and the extra virgin olive oil they produce is PDO certified.
“We only use the traditional methods on some years, when the conditions are just right,” Antonio explains, gesturing to the ancient machinery. “Otherwise it’s impossible to make a high quality oil. This year we had a very quick maturation because of the very hot summer with a few intense rainfalls – bad conditions for traditional presses. So this year we only used modern techniques.”
A gnarled olive tree stands in the courtyard of Nunez de Prado’s estate, its dusty leaves dappled with gauzy winter sunshine. Antonio tells us that in the past it was a site of thanksgiving. Returning from the groves for the day, olive pickers would go up to this tree and give thanks for the harvest.
“So our workers have been saying thanks to this exact tree for over two hundred years,” Antonio says.
Gazing up at the tree – which, like all olive trees, somehow looks wise and noble – I can’t say I’m surprised. After all, these trees have given Córdoba a lot to be proud of.