I “adopted” an olive tree from Almazara La Alqueria a couple years ago via Crowdfarming.
I was very excited that the producer was close to home in Spain, right in the Sierra de Mariola natural park, and that they would send me nice freshly pressed olive oil to my home in London. Also, I would contribute to organic farming in the area—what’s not to like?
Even more interestingly, as part of the Crowdfarming arrangement you also have the chance to “meet” your adopted tree if you want to.
Of course this hasn’t been very easy in the last year and a half plus 😏
But I finally had the chance to do that last month! It was really interesting and I learned lots of things which I’m going to share with you now!
Please be mindful that I did not take notes during the visit, so…
- this is not the Alqueria’s official version.
- if there are errors they’re my own lousy memory’s fault, or an unfortunate misunderstanding.
- always double check your sources and don’t take everything you see on the Internet at face value!
We made our way to the small town of Muro, on the northern side of Alicante. We had been worried that the rain would put a stop to our visit plans, but it turned out to be a great day, although it was still occasionally cloudy!
At the offices, Toni (I think) introduced himself, regretfully said that we were missing the harvest by just about two weeks, and so the Almazara (the mill) wasn’t active yet, but he showed us some slides using a projector they have there, so we could get an idea for how extra virgin olive oil is made.
Making extra virgin olive oil
This is where the first surprise kicked in: I had visited the local cooperative in a school trip, many years ago, and I distinctly remember how they mentioned the pressing and repressing of the already extracted olive pulp and other parts you could juice. In contrast, there wasn’t much of that here, instead they try to get the freshest olive juice as soon as possible, and even use some methods to cool the pulp so that the pressing doesn’t end up “cooking” the oil in the process (which would make it lose aromas and etc).
In terms of harvesting, they don’t wait until the olives are fully ripened, but instead they are harvested when they’re still quite “green”. This means you’ll be extracting a higher quantity of water, but the aromas are also fresher. Since they’re not a cooperative who buys olives from smaller producers and wants to make the most per kilo, they don’t worry about that—this is a higher grade product.
They collect and process each variety separately. Once pressed and filtered, each one goes into a big storage tank with nitrogen on them (so the air in the tank is inert and the oil doesn’t get rancid by exposure to oxygen), before they’re bottled into either individual presentations or blended. There’s very little processing that goes into making this oil: they’re as close to a “fruit juice” as possible.
On supermarket olive oils
Here we entered an interesting detour into why supermarket / mass produced olive oil can be of “questionable” quality: since the oil is fruit juice, you want it to reach the consumer as soon as possible, and if not, you want to preserve it in the best conditions possible.
But a very long time can pass between the oil being pressed, the big brands buying it from small-medium producers, everything being blended, bottled, distributed, placed on the shelves and finally sold.
In addition, these mass-marketed oils are also commonly sold in see-through containers. Either plastic or glass, if you can see inside, then the oil can also be damaged by light. And supermarket lights can be brighter than your kitchen. Add to that a perhaps unsuitable temperature at the shop or extreme variations in temperature (as the heating or air conditioned gets turned off at the end of the day), and you get a very non-ideal environment to keep oils.
What happens is that no matter how fresh it was when it was picked first, by the time it reaches the consumer’s hands, it is but a shade of its former self. The colour will get paler, the aromas will become weaker. It might even taste rancid.
This is why if you want olive oil that tastes of olive oil, you’ll get better results if you find oil in cans and buy with as little intermediaries in between as possible.
One trick I heard once in a Honey & Co podcast was that if you can find the press or harvest date in an olive oil bottle, that is a very good sign as it will help you assess freshness!
“Italian” olive oil: the good, the bad and the ugly
The good thing about Spain: we produce a lot of olive oil (1,125,300 tons in 2020).
The bad thing about Spain: we don’t know how to sell our work.
The bad thing about Italy: they produce way less olive oil than they wish they did (366,000 tons in 2020).
The good thing about Italy: they are very good at selling their work.
The ugly: Spanish olive oil is sometimes shipped to Italy, bottled and sold as “Italian”.
Olive varieties and oil blends
This mill works with a number of different varieties of olives.
Like any other fruit, each variety has different characteristics in terms of shape and size, and of course the resulting juice also exhibits differences in colour, aromas, length of the aromas, etc.
The most cultivated variety in Spain is Picual, which they also grow. It has a medium size. There’s also Gordal (a bigger olive). And Arbequina (classic in Catalunya and Aragon), smaller in size.
Of special interest to me were the two local varieties they cultivate: Blanqueta (paler in colour, as its name indicates, and which I believe was more tolerant of the damper climate around the Beniarrès reservoir, so it doesn’t develop fungus), and Alfafarenca (which is more resistant to cold spells typical of this mountain region, and more delicate in flavour, subtle, but short lived—and I also think it’s the one that had a little ‘peak’ at the bottom).
Each variety is different from the other because each one has a different combination of oils (e.g. oleic, linoleic…) and acidity profile. What we mean when an oil “goes off” is that the glycerid molecules become unstable and break down. And then they become rancid. Some varieties go off earlier than others, depending on how stable their particular profile is.
The mill have a little laboratory in-house, which they use to take samples of their oils as they press them, to assess quality and determine whether there are any defects. This allows them to grade the oil and guarantee that it is in fact extra virgin olive oil (otherwise it would drop to “just” virgin olive oil).
Note from research separate from the visit: apparently this “acidity” does not describe the classic pH acidity measure, but it is related to the % of free acids that are present in the oil. Extra virgin oil is meant to have less than 0.8% acidity whereas virgin could have up to 2%.
You can make single-variety oil if the variety is sufficiently balanced. So for example they offer oil made exclusively of Alfafarenca. But often you have to blend various varieties to obtain a pleasant final result.
Interestingly, there seems to be only a few people who develop blends for many mills in the Valencian Community.
All of this reminded me a lot to how grapes are considered in the context of making wine.
Turning land into organic
The area around this mill is made up of many smallholdings, and often these would belong to various small producers as a property would have been split between siblings on inheritances and so on, so you can find that plots can be in really disparate states of conservation.
The mill keep acquiring plots in order to increase production, and that means that they then need to examine what the situation with the land is, in order to turn them into proper organic plots.
There’s a certification process to do this—but the rough guideline is that the longer a plot has been abandoned or inactive, the earlier it is considered to be ‘organic’ (as whichever pesticides or non-organic chemicals involved previously break down with time).
On the easygoingness of olive trees
It seems that olive trees are really nice to grow.
Once they get going, they are quite sturdy, and will just keep producing olives. They require way less maintenance than, say, fruits like apples or peaches, as insects are way more attracted by the high sugar content of these and you have to be checking them continuously.
In contrast, you just have to prune olive trees a bit here and there at the right time, and ensure they do not develop fungus when it’s damper. Maybe apply a bit of (organic approved) product, and wait for the olives to grow.
So it sounds like a very sedate way of growing stuff.
La Alquería keep track of where their plots and trees are, using some GIS software (I can tell you that the wide availability of GPS has been a godsend for agronomy).
We drove with their very proper car for rough surfaces, and after a few minutes we were in Benimarfull (a smaller town nearby with less than 400 inhabitants), looking down on the Beniarrés reservoir.
[Many toponyms in the Valencian Community begin with “Beni-” which means “sons of…” in Arabic]
We walked past a few more plots and then straight towards “my” tree, which was very exciting!
(There is a metal tag tied to each tree, with the name of the tree and the adoption date).
So here is it: a Blanqueta tree!
It is a relatively young tree.
You can also see the white-ish soil typical of the area—plenty of limestone!
These are the other trees in the same parcel. Since they’re all roughly the same size I reckon they probably were planted at the same time.
Small producers, cooperatives and breaking even
I don’t remember how much yield our guide said you could get out of one tree unfortunately, but it isn’t a lot in any case. So if you’re a small producer, you’d need a certain amount of trees before it makes sense to start selling to anyone and getting any margin.
This is why really small producers often prefer to collect and sell by weight in cooperatives, and get olive oil for themselves in return, rather than going through the hassle of packaging, marketing, selling, etc.
Bonus, 1: the Benicadell mountain range
This is the mountain range that separates the Vall d’Albaida and Comtat comarcas.
The highest point is also called Benicadell and is 1104 m high. For reference, this particular picture was taken at 400 m above sea level, my phone tells me.
I’ve spent plenty of time over the years looking at mountains in the area and I still find their old worn down shapes somehow soothing. I don’t know why!
Bonus, 2: the old Muro de Alcoi station building
When we were walking back to our car, we noticed this building… that somehow looked like a train station, and indeed it was the train station for the old Alcoi-Gandia line.
The train line was decommissioned at the end of the 1960s, and the tracks have mostly been turned into roads, but most of the station buildings are still standing, although obviously they have a different purpose nowadays. This one in particular is a community centre.
I was very excited to see this station as one of my “dreams” is to visit the stations in this line, and so far I had only seen two: Alfafara and Alcoi.
A final interesting anecdote about this line: it was built and promoted by English capitalists who wanted to sell English coal to the nascent industry in the Alcoy / Gandia area.
This was quite an interesting visit!
I’m really looking forward to getting the next batch of olive oil. I’ll look at it with different eyes, now that I know how it is made 🙂
To adopt a tree, go to their Crowdfarming page.
Alternatively, you can also buy from their website (if you’re lucky and still in the EU, unlike the UK 🙄): https://almazaralaalqueria.com/