An Expert’s Guide to Spanish Olive Oil

Santiago Botas has conducted olive oil tastings in 25 countries to educate food professionals and consumers about Spanish oil. Given that Spain introduced the olive tree to America and that Spain is the world’s largest olive oil producer, it’s surprising that Spanish olive oil has such a low profile in the U.S. But that’s about to change. Spain’s finest oils are challenging Italy’s for prestige.

We asked Santiago Botas to enlighten us about Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, which belongs in every serious cook’s pantry.

“The Spanish olive oil sector has undergone a revolution in the last 25 years,” says Botas. “We were producing for quantity, not quality. Now we are obtaining lower yields but better organoleptic qualities. Today we have such a range of aromas and flavors that we can choose an oil for a particular application.”

To be certified as extra-virgin by the International Olive Oil Council, headquartered in Madrid, an olive oil must be produced by mechanical methods--that is, the olives are simply crushed and pressed, without using any chemical extraction processes. The resulting oil must have a free oleic fatty acid content of no more than than 0.8%. (Note that this is a laboratory measurement of rancidity; it does not refer to the flavors of the oil.) Furthermore, the oil must pass an evaluation by a panel of professional tasters trained by the International Olive Oil Council. If the tasters find any defects, the oil won’t pass. They sample from blue-tinted glasses so they won’t be prejudiced by the oil’s color. “That’s because color doesn’t tell us anything,” says Botas. “A good oil may be light yellow or deep green, but I insist that color has nothing to do with quality.”

Spain produces more extra-virgin olive oil than any other country in the world and much of it is very high quality. Even the prestigious Italian annual guide to the best extra-virgins consistently lists Spanish oils among its highest awards. And olive oil is produced almost everywhere in the country. Although olive trees are absent from some high mountain regions and in Galicia, the South of Spain is virtually defined by olives. In fact, the province of Jaen is the world’s leading producer of olive oil and the breathtaking sight of miles and miles of olive groves, stretching to the horizon, is for many the very definition of Andalucia’s landscape. But there are at latest count twenty different denominaciones de origen (controlled denominations of origin, or DOs) in Spain, from Rioja and Aragon to Toledo to the Balearic Islands, all carefully crafted from many different varieties of olives. In Andalucia, picudo, picual, and hojiblanca olives give an assertive flavor to oils from Baena or the Montes de Granada, while in Catalonia the most typical olive, the arbequina, gives a pleasantly nutty fragrance to oils from Siurana or Les Garrigues, among others. Cornicabra is the distinctive oil of Toledo, while cornezuelo is the variety used in Monterrubio in Extremadura. And that’s just the beginning.
Cooks in Spain, and increasingly cooks outside Spain as well, thus have a wealth of different flavors with which to experiment, whether using extra-virgin olive oil as a condiment, a garnish, or a basic kitchen tool.

One important technique for non-Spanish cooks: For deep frying, knowledgeable Spanish cooks choose extra-virgin olive oil, often an oil from Andalucia because the picual olive, which is predominant in the region, is high in natural antioxidants and thus long lasting and stable at high heat. Many American cooks mistakenly believe that you can’t fry in olive oil—that its flash point is too low—but Andalusian cooks know better. Regarded as the “kings of frying” in Spain, they use exclusively olive oil, preferably their own. In fact, as they don’t hesitate to point out, the best frying temperature is 180º C. (about 360º F.) in order to produce a batter-fried piece of fish for instance in which the batter is crisp and crunchy and not the least bit greasy while the inside fish is tender and moist but not overcooked. At that temperature, the batter will not absorb more than a trace of oil and the flavor of the oil will contribute to the dish.

As more and more high-quality Spanish olive oils are exported abroad, more and more cooks and chefs will have the opportunity to sample from among this vast and interesting gamut of flavors. Below is a list of Spanish controlled denomination olive oils. Not all of these are always available, but increasingly they can be found from high-quality gourmet products suppliers.

Denominaciones de Origen in Spain

  • Aceite de La Rioja
  • Les Garrigues
  • Aceite del Bajo Aragón
  • Siurana
  • Aceite de Terra Alta
  • Aceite del Baix Ebre-Montsià
  • Aceite de Mallorca
  • Gata-Hurdes
  • Montes de Toledo
  • Aceite Monterrubio
  • Sierra de Segura
  • Sierra de Cazorla
  • Sierra Mágina
  • Baena
  • Priego de Córdoba
  • Montes de Granada
  • Poniente de Granada
  • Sierra de Cádiz
  • Estepa
  • Antequera
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