For years there was an accepted truth about the two largest oil-producing countries in the world. Sure, Spain’s got volume but Italy’s where you go for quality, ran the line. It’s a version of reality that has always suited Italian marketers. No matter that a lot of Spanish oil has always gone to Italy for bottling anyway.
These days, you don’t hear this line peddled quite so much. Spain is still of course the world’s largest producer of oil by some distance but quantity is increasingly accompanied by, yes, quality. There are now more than a few Italian producers and journalists who look at what’s going on in Spain with admiration and perhaps a hint of envy.
The Malaxer caught up with Casas de Hualdo to look at a reality that, in our book, is one of the best examples of a Spanish farm making serious, world-class oils at volume.
The Casas de Hualdo estate, some 630 hectares of land near Toledo on the banks of the Tajo river, was bought by Francisco Riberas in 1986. Riberas founded Spain’s largest steel company, Gestamp, but had also developed an interest in sustainable agriculture. Ten years after he bought the farm, he planted 300,000 olive trees which today form the basis of the estate’s production of around 7,600 hectolitres of oil. Although Francisco passed away several years ago, the Riberas family – one of the richest in Spain – still owns the estate.
Those numbers again: 300,000 olive trees and 7,600 hectolitres of oil. That’s big, right? We’re talking the sort of figures you might expect from a large bottling co-operative. So what, you might say. Well, the interesting thing is that this is a single estate. To put that into context, in Puglia, Italy’s largest producing region, even a large estate like Sabino Leone is only doing 1,700 hectolitres from 31,000 trees.
But even more interesting is that Casas de Hualdo – led by estate manager José Antonio Peche and miller Jesús Corcuera – are making some genuinely stunning oils. Technically very good, yes, but also with a genuine sense of place. And what a place it is. The landscape is gently undulating, quite arid with unexpected, patchy bursts of green. This is a hard climate – very cool winters and hot, demanding summers with altitudes going from around 400 to 600 metres. Olive groves have always been here. It’s a landscape you can’t imagine without them.
The estate can feel a bit like a nature reserve at times. On top of its own flock of native Manchego, there are wild rabbits, boars red partridges and golden eagles. Besides the olives, the estate even has its own farmer, Isidoro, a native of Castilla La Mancha, who manages crops of pistachio, barley and wheat. Unlike some other larger-scale producers, grass is allowed to grow between the beautifully-kept olive trees. What little irrigation goes on comes from the river, the farm reuses olive pits for heating fuel and the manure from its flock of sheeps provides fertiliser for the land.
But, back to the oils. The estate makes four monovarietals – an arbequina, picual, cornicabra and manzanilla – as well as two high-end and two catering blends. We tasted three of the monovarietals last year (from the 2015 harvest) and some brief notes are below. They all capture the fruit from the farm’s groves wonderfully and reflect the work that has gone into what now must be one of Spain’s top estates. Big or not.
This has some really big fruit upfront and in the mouth with ripe tomato, fresh cut grass, artichoke and banana. Even a bit of citrus and mint adds up to a really complex oil. Not much bitterness as you would expect from arbequina but stunning freshness even though tasted in October following the harvest. Would be a great all-rounder and on salads, fish etc.
Lovely pepper warmth to this with a nice bitterness tempered by the lovely fruit – mint, green banana, spinach and basil. Very nicely balanced. Would be terrific on meat and grilled veg.
This is Castilla La Mancha’s native cultivar and goes up a notch in bitterness and pungency. Straight off you get quite bitter notes of endive, rocket and olive leaves but also ripe apple and almonds. Really interesting and perhaps the most powerful of the three. I think you’d need to pair it with something quite gutsy.