José Pizarro ranks up there with the likes of Sam and Eddie Hart of Barrafina and Monika Linton of Brindisa (with whom he set up the eponymous restaurants) as one of the most influential exponents of Spanish food in the UK. Pizarro opened his first solo venture, a phenomenally successful tapas bar in Bermondsey in 2011, and has since gone on to open a further two restaurants, Pizarro and José Pizarro Broadgate. The Malaxer caught up with José to talk about his relationship with olive oil.

And it’s a relationship that has deep roots. Pizarro grew up in a farm in the Extremaduran village of Talaván: “I still remember when I was 12 to 15 years old helping with the olive harvest [the farm is still going apparently and still making olive oil]. Back in those days we would still harvest quite late into winter, letting the olives fall to the ground. I would pick up these cold, frozen olives by hand.” Probably not the most exciting experience for a young teenage boy but consolation came in the form of eating olive oil all day. “Even at breakfast I remember eating olive oil on bread or with pan de tomato” says José.

Pizarro has always remained faithful to olive oils from the region. “The day to day oil we use in the kitchen is an extra-virgin from Extremadura. We get through about a pallet a month”. Finishing oils on the tables of his restaurants are more varied and are rotated from different parts of Spain although José is still careful to keep the same oil – frequently an arbequina – for all customers at any one time for a consistent experience.

José Pizarro

José Pizarro on the olive oil in one of his retaurants. Image courtesy of José Pizarro.

Due to Pizzaro’s status as one of the most high-profile Spanish chefs working abroad, he gets sent a huge amount of oils to taste from some of the country’s top farms and producers. A cupboard fill to bursting of different Spanish blends and cultivars has allowed José to experiment: “Sometimes with early harvest oils it can be so green it’s like tasting grass. This is too much for say, a salad – it would destroy it. You need to pair it with something stronger. Also, the varieties are so different – from picual to arbequina to manzanilla and so regional. What they produce in Toledo, Almeria, Catalonia and so on are so diverse. I am lucky I can experiment with all these oils and don’t have to buy them!”

When Pizarro first came to London, he suffered the traumatic experience of being asked for butter by customers (or even having to cook with it in the early restaurants he worked in). “This has changed completely though. Now my customers see olive oil as part of the experience of eating Spanish food. I even have customers saying sometimes – when I change the oils – can I go back to the arbequina or the picual.” Maybe one day we’ll see an olive oil list on the tables of Pizarro’s restaurants. If that happened, The Malaxer really would never leave.

José Pizarro’s favourite farms and producers:

Oro del desierto (Terrific farm in Andalucia producing Arbequina, Hojiblanca, Picual and Lechín)
Marqués de Valdueza (Estate from Extremadura making top-class blends from Arbequina, Picual, Hojiblanca and Marisca cultivars)
Naturvie (Another Extremadura estate making some interesting monovarietals from rare cultivars such as cornezuelo as well as blends)
Oleazara (A Zaragoza producer very focused on early harvest oils from mainly arbequina and empeltre olives)
Victoriano (We don’t know much about this farm but it is again from Extremadura and is one of José Pizarro’s top picks at the moment for their arbequina)