Sunday, September 9, 2012

Travels and Tastes of Spain (part 3) - Olive oil tour


I finally got to do something very foody and see a bit of countryside in the process.  On the last day in Granada we decided to pass the afternoon with an olive oil tour promising great views, tastes and treats.  For a bit more money, we were told we could even try some of the local wines… how could I pass that up.

We were driven to a tiny village sitting at the foot of the original Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Got a bit of an interesting facts about olive and almond trees, how they grow, how this village irrigates the fields with the spring water coming off the mountains with an irrigation system build in the 14th century and still working and practical today.  Olive trees can live virtually forever and the most optimally producing olive tree should be at least 50 years old, it is said that with age, olive trees produce better quality olives even though the crop is less.  So we got to touch and marvel at olive trees that are hundreds of years old.  Appreciate almonds and pomegranates growing in between the olive trees (it is believed that if you plant an almond or pomegranate tree near an olive tree, the olive fruit will absorb some of the scent from the almond or pomegranate flowers).  In the village we got to drink from a public fountain with water coming straight off the mountains, the water is believed to restore youth.  I wanted to bathe in it but an obnoxiously pretty young French woman beat me to it.
We got to see the old olive oil mill, built in 14th century and astonishingly operated in almost exact same way until 1920’s. 
14th century olive oil mill
As we sat down to an olive oil tasting, I was a bit anxious if I would be able to pick out the differences or recognize good oil.  After all, I have never been to an olive oil tasting, I am not sure how it is done and what I am supposed to be looking for.  However, I do know what kind of olive oil I prefer, so I was going to approach this experience with the same aplomb as a novice wine drinker defends his likes and dislikes.

The tasting was very well narrated, so not only did we learn how you should be tasting olive oil, but a bit about the type of oil you were tasting, about the production process and what notes and properties we should be looking for in each oil.  I did learn a few new things and will be re-reading the back labels on all my olive oils the minute I get home, as it seems that what is being sold as good olive oil on many occasion is a blend of many oils including refined ones. 

What fascinated me most is that how little the actual process of making olive oil has changed from the ancient times to the present, even with the use of industrial machinery, the basics are exactly the same.
Blind donkeys were used to for the job of making olive paste...I think my husband just revolutionized the process

But back to the tasting, the way to taste olive oil is not by mopping it up with a piece of bread as commonly thought.  First you smell the oil as you would wine, judging the aromas as perhaps, fruity, nutty, grassy, citrusy…etc… As the tasting cup is warmed in your hand you judge how the aromas might have changed, it very similar to waiting for the wine to “open up” by aerating it or swirling the glass.  Than you take a little sip, just enough to coat your tongue, the sides of your mouth and the roof.  You may feel a bit or a lot of tingling in the back of your throat, it is normal and is a good way to judge whether the olive oil is fresh.  (By the way, the oil only keeps for 4 month after it open, at that is for filtered oils, unfiltered have even shorter shelf life. So you should not hoard your oils, use them while they are optimally fresh and good for you).  After that first initial taste, you can take a little piece of bread and soak it with olive oil.  This second taste with food can give you a good idea of what the oil will be like at your dinner table.  By the way, all the oils we tasted are Extra Virgin Oils, which are different from Virgin oils, which should mostly be used for cooking.  Extra Virgin olive oil of good quality is generally used for finishing dishes, for salad dressing and for dipping.


The palate is cleansed with a piece of apple and we move on to the next oil to taste.  I was very impressed with how easy it was to distinguish what I liked and what I didn’t like.  Although to tell the truth, all the oils offered for tasting were exceptional.

From the whole group of olive oil tasters only two people opted to do the wine tasting, me and my husband… what a surprise.  Having done so many tastings in the US I was wondering how the Spanish conduct it.  For starters we were given a tapa of iberico ham cured on the tallest peak of the Sierras right over the village we were in; the plate also included some local manchego like cheese, which was mild and very pleasant.  All wines we tasted were produced locally.  The white was very pleasantly dry, even though it contained a Muscat grape.  Spanish Muscat is picked earlier, before the sugar sets in, therefore if you prefer drier whites, do not bypass Muscat Spanish wines, they are delicious especially with sea food. 

The red was a blend of several grapes, crafted by a retired gentleman in this same village.  He makes wine as hobby and only bottles a few hundred cases a year, which makes this wine exceptionally interesting to try as you would not be able to taste it anywhere else in the world.  We got a lesson on Spanish Sherries, which range in spectrum from a dry white to syrupy like very sweet dark sherry.  I personally did not care for the dry sherry, it tasted more like medicine to me, but upon hearing how our guide uses it in cooking, I may try it, if I can find it.  The sweet dark sherry is a delight if you like port or if you like the sweeter glazes for game meats or reductions to compliment both savory and sweet dishes.
And why was I never given ham and cheese at a wine tasting in the US?

All four of us thought the olive oil tour was great fun and provided a great break from walking cobblestone streets and looking at old buildings.  With a little bit of a different perspective on the olive tree and Spanish country side we boarded an overnight train to the final stop - Barcelona.

To be continued….

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