Whether living in Spain or traveling in Spain, we all know that olive oil is king. Miles and miles of olive groves in the south, in the center, east and west; olive oil on almost every salad; as an option for breakfast toast; included in some form in almost every meal (if only a drizzle to do the fish); many meters of shelf space in most supermarkets…. yes, olive oil is very, very important in Spain.
Yet outside Spain, Spanish oil is only starting to be known for quality and quantity. How can this be? Let’s learn a little about olive oil in Spain.
Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, by a large difference. In 2013-2014 world production of oil was around 3,252,000 tons, with Spain at 1,781,000 tons; Italy was second with 463,000 tons and Greece third with 132,000 tons. Most of the other top producers were around the Mediterranean and a few in the Americas – USA came in far down the list with around 12,000 tons.
Digging a little deeper, statistics show that in the same year Spain consumed about 525,000 tons, Italy 641,000 tons and Greece 140,000 tons (both more than their production). Those figures look odd, don’t they? Especially thinking of the amount of olive oil that Italy exports?
The answer lies in the imports: Italy imported 268,000 tons of oil from a variety of countries, mostly in bulk and a lot from Spain. Italy exported 233,000 tons of oil in the same year, so at least some of the oil that Italy exports is not Italian oil at all, only bottled in Italy, something obvious when reading labels carefully, and even by looking at a map – there’s just not enough land in Italy to produce enough oil for local and export markets.
Yes, Spain does import some oil – around 144.000 tons in the same year. But they export a lot more: almost 280,000 tons in the 2013-2014 season. Traditionally that export oil has been in bulk to countries unable to satisfy their own demand, but finally Spanish oil is starting to get a name for itself, selling more and more bottled oil and less bulk, reaching 140 countries including many countries in the EU and as far away as Asia (China, Japan, Australia, India). Alas, the USA market takes only 92,850 tons of Spanish oil (lots in bulk), while Italian oil sells around 150,000 tons, and mostly bottled for consumer use. Hopefully those numbers will improve in the future, the USA is a huge market and very appreciative of good olive oil.
But while we’re in Spain, and here we can enjoy a wide variety of Spanish olive oils, and help spread the word to the world. Let’s see (and taste!) what Spain has to offer.
Kinds of olives: There are more than 200 varieties of olives in Spain. Some are small production or very local; about 20 varieties are used frequently to make olive oil. Often these varieties are associated to a region: Cornicabra is usually south-central Spain, Arbequina is usually found in Catalonia and Picual is frequent in the south.
Of all those varieties, three are most important and easy to find in stores all over the country:
– Arbequina: mild flavor with a nice fragrance
– Picual: Stronger flavor and perfume
– Hojiblanca: stronger flavor with a little bite at the end. My favorite, excellent on salads.
Other olive oil varieties that are relatively frequent and easy to find: cornicabra, empeltre, picudo, lechin.
Kinds of oil: Olive oil can be mono-varietal (made of just one kind of olives) or a coupage or mixture of different kinds of oils. Coupage olive oils try to bring out the best in the different oils used, and try to compensate for seasonal variations in production or flavor.
That’s important to remember: like wine, olive oil is a natural product and can vary widely from season to season, or even within the same season: oil pressed on the same estate early in the harvest and late in the harvest can vary in flavor. Or regional differences, since oil from a specific variety (say, Arbequina) can be different if produced in Catalonia or in central Spain.
Kinds of oil, part two: Olive oil comes in many different qualities with different names. To get the best, you should always get Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This specific name indicates manufacturing process – just mushing the olives and filtering the oil, no heat, no chemical process – and should (but alas, doesn’t always) indicate specific parameters about acidity and fragrance. The label should say Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra and “Aceite de Oliva de categoria superior obtenido directamente de aceitunas y solo mediante procedimientos mecánicos” (superior quality oil obtained directly from olives and only using mechanical procedures) – so really it’s olive juice with nothing added and nothing subtracted, except filtering the gunk left over after pressing the olives. Next step down is virgen oil – the manufacturing process is the same but it doesn’t quite meet the other parameters. Below that is just plain olive oil and other names. Don’t go there. Stay with Extra Virgin or if you cannot find it, Virgin olive oil. There really is a big difference.
Olive oil in cooking: A short note on the rumor that we should not use Extra Virgin olive oil for cooking: like all oils, olive oil breaks down if heated past the smoke point. But the smoke point is not really low: 160º-207º C (320-405ºF) for extra virgin, depending on quality, with virgin olive oil at a slightly higher smoke point. So it’s just a question of watching your pan to make sure temperature doesn’t get above that, or use a different oil if higher temperatures are needed. (oil with highest smoke point on my list? Avocado oil! Who knew?)
Eeek! So what should I get? All this may sound confusing, but it isn’t. Once you discover your favorite oils, you can have a lot of fun exploring the differences, or testing and tasting oils that are completely different from the one you usually use. Nowadays more and more manufacturers show the olive variety on the label, so if you know you like Arbequina you can go with that one (noticing what manufacturers you like best) until you are ready to try other kinds. Soon you’ll discover what kinds work best for different uses, and you may end up with several kinds of oil on hand, one for salads, another for doing fish and yet another for your morning toast.
My own choice? I always get mono-varietal, usually Hojiblanca. When really organized, I also have Arbequina for some uses. I’ve tried and like Empeltre, Alfafarenca, Cornicabra and Picudo. And yes, always always Extra Virgin. I use olive oil for almost everything, except a few odd recipes that need a no-taste oil to pull everything together.
Get more info at:
International Olive Oil Council: Headquarters in Madrid, logical after what we’ve seen. Lots of information on their website http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/ Source for statistics used here for other countries http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/estaticos/view/131-world-olive-oil-figures
Fundación Patrimonio Comunal Olivero: Spanish foundation to promote use of oil and educate consumers. Very good store in Madrid, everything is Extra Virgin (so it takes some of the guesswork out of your purchase). Olive oil from all over Spain, and many, different varieties. My choice for getting favorites and also for trying new kinds. Website http://www.pco.es