The chances are that if you eat anywhere decent in Porto – and it’s hard not to – you’ll come across an oil that Antonio Pavao and his brother Francisco have had something to do with. Their estate, Casa de Santo Amaro, produces its own bottles from olives grown on the farm but also acts as the mill (and often consultant) to other growers in the region. Names such as the Quinta do Crasto wine estate use Antonio and Francisco’s expertise to produce their oils.
A couple of hours north east of Portugal’s second city, Porto, the Casa de Santo Amaro estate is situated in the heart of the Trás-os-Montes region, an area that for some years has consistently been producing top oils, focusing on quality over volume. Antonio and Francisco’ story is fairly typical. A family-owned estate that can trace its history back to 1687, Antonio says the first olive mill was installed in 1902. The brothers, the eighth generation of the family, took the decision around ten years ago to stop selling bulk oil and to focus on bottling under their own label.
They have around 30,000 trees, predominantly verdeal transmontanta, madural and cobrançosa with a smaller planting of negrinha de freixo (a less widespread native variety they are experimenting with but not bottling yet). When we visited in mid-november, the madural and cobrançosa olives had largely been harvested while the verdeal olives were still looking quite green and just starting to be picked.
Antonio showed us round the farm’s mill where granite millstones are still used to crush the olives. It’s always interesting to find farms where these are still used rather than more modern hammer crushers and Antonio, like certain producers in Puglia where they are still quite prevalent, was adamant that because of the lower temperatures they operate at, they influence the style of the oil. He admitted though – with a smile – that they are a bitch to clean!
Very typically of Trás-os-Montes, the five bottles in Casa de Santo Amaro’s range are all blends. The varieties are picked at different times, milled, racked and filtered in separate tanks until the blending takes place. Although this season’s blending and bottling was still to take place, Antonio led us down to the tanks and gave us a taste of two cobrançosa oils and a verdeal. The cobrançosas were both extremely elegant, naturally very well-balanced with lots of green tomato, fresh greens and salad leaves. The verdeal on the other hand was very fresh but also really zippy with tea, spices and black pepper and a really long throat that was first peppery then very warm. The cobrançosa, explained Antonio, typically balances out the verdeal. They use different quantities in the blend each year according to the characteristics of that season’s olives.
When we asked Antonio what he would pair his oils with, he said that he never uses his oils in the kitchen. His shelves are filled with bottles from other producers and countries in an effort to find out how other people make their olive oil. This helps him understand the characteristics of his own land and his olives and helps him make better oils. The results of this are manifestly excellent and if you come across any of Casa de Santo Amaro’s oils in the UK – currently very difficult – you should snap them up.