Your supermarket aisles are stocked with olive oil. Every day, it seems, we hear of the most recent disease it helps prevent or health benefit reaped from it. Mediterranean countries have sworn by it for centuries, but if magazines and newspapers are any indication, its popularity currently outshines that of pashminas, Eminem, and Nicole Kidman in almost every corner of the world…and it doesn´t appear to be going anywhere.
Spanish Olive Oil Varieties
What is Spain´s olive oil contribution to this growing trend? The country has approximately 1,800 factories dedicated to the production of virgin olive oil, half of which are located in Andalucia; 308 million olive trees , (185 million in Andalucia); and produces 830,000 tons of olive oil annually, nothing less than thirty four percent of the world production. Due to Spain´s diverse climate, microclimate and rich soils, a great variety of olives are cultivated nationally which lead to the production of olive oils with a wide range of flavours and aroma. Spain is the only country in the world that cultivates as many as 260 olive varieties. The most representative varieties available in Spain with regards to olive oil production are picual, hojiblanca, cornicabra, arbequina, lechin and Empeltre. Varieties such as Manzanilla and Gordal are commonly used in the production of olives, but they are not mentioned here because their use in oil production is not as common.
Picual is the most important olive variety in the world and is the most widely cultivated variety in Spain. Almost fifty percent of the virgin olive oil produced here is obtained from the Picual variety. Ripe Picual olives are black, medium-sized, with an elevated fat content of up to 27 percent. Olive oil produced from the Picual variety has a fruity flavour with hints of almond and an aroma of apple. From a chemical view point, these oils are excellent due to the composition of fatty acids and the abundant presence of natural antioxidants. Picual olives are most widely cultivated in Jaén, although production regions extend to the provinces of Córdoba, Granada, and part of Cuidad Real. The majority of the new olive groves in Andalucia are made up of Picual olive trees due to their early, high, constant production.
The Hojiblanca variety originated from Lucena (Córdoba) and is widely produced throughout Andalucia, particularly in the provinces of Sevilla, southern Córdoba, and the northern part of Málaga. It represents 16% of the olive production in Andalucia. Hojiblanca gets its name from the light color of the tree leaves (hojiblanca=white leaf). Collection time is later for this variety than others (March-April), leading to a lower production rate. Hojiblanca olives are violet-to-black in color when ripe, large in size, and tend to be more difficult to pick, rarely falling from the trees on their own. This variety produces an average amount of oil (18-20%), which tends to have vegetable flavours, be smooth on the palate, with an almondy aftertaste, The oils are relatively stable due to their low level of antioxidants and high amount of vitamin E. Hojiblanca oils have a lower level of saturated fat relative to other varieties.
The Cornicabra variety comes from Mora de Toledo, with production regions extending today from Toledo to Cuidad Real, where almost all of the oil comes from this variety. This variety is second in terms of land area used for its cultivation in Spain, but third as far as production is concerned. Cornicabra oils produce a good amount of oil (22%) and are very stable due to the high content of the antioxidant polifenole and the low amount of tocoferole. When handled correctly, the Cornicabra variety produces high quality virgin olive oils. Cornicabra oils are golden yellow in color, fragrant and fruity, sweet on the palate, slightly bitter, and moderately spicy.
The Arbequina variety comes from Arbeca, in the province of Lérida, where it gets its name. Cultivation zones extend from Lérida to Tarragona, passing through Zaragoza and Huesca. Arbequina olives are small, making mechanical collection difficult. They are widely recognized, however, for their early production, which leads to high production rates and large amounts of oil. Oils produced from the Arbequina variety are fruity, greenish in color, slightly bitter, sweet, and spicy. Due to their chemical composition, these oils are more delicate than others with respect to oxidation. Arbequina oils are known for their outstanding quality.
The Lechín variety originated in Córdoba and Sevilla, although today its cultivation is primarily focused in Sevilla and the outskirts of Córdoba, Cádiz, and the Málaganian town of Ronda. Lechín olives ripen relatively early in the season and produce an average amount of oil. Ripe Lechíns are black and small in size, making it a common variety used in the making of table olives. Oils produced from the Lechín variety are stable, greenish-yellow in color, both bitter and sweet in flavour, with good organaleptic characteristics. The Empeltre olive variety is characteristic of the community of Aragón, originating in Pedrola. Its cultivation zones extend to the provinces of Logroño and Teruel, through the Ebro Valley to the province of Tarragona.
Empeltre olives are of average size when ripe and produce an average amount of oil (18%). The oils are generally pale yellow in color, with a sublte fruity aroma, and are extremely sweet and pleasant on the palate, never spicy or bitter. This variety is well-known for its high productivity and the excellent quality of the oils it creates.
Spanish Olive Oil Designation of Origin (DO)
Nevertheless, Spanish olive oil production continues to grow as new iniciatives are put into place that support the sector, including new Designations of Origin (Denominación de Origen) that protect traditional olive oil producing regions and private projects that look to improve an already impressive sector. Various traditional Spanish olive productions zones have been granted the prestigious Designation of Origin status by the Spanish Department of Agriculture. Each DO has Regulating Councils that have the important job of controlling which brands receive the Denominación de Origen status, and ensuring that those with DO follow the established norms of the region. Spanish extra virgin olive oils with Designation of Origin must have an acidity level no greater than 1%. Individual oil characteristics depend on the olive variety used for production, but the range of Spanish olive oils with D.O. is broad and rich enough to satisfy even the pickiest tastes.
DO Aceite Monterrubio uses olives of the Cornezuelo and Picual varieties in ninety percent of its olive oils. Other varieties include Mollar, Cornicabra, Pico Limon, and Corniche. This aromatic oil has a fruity flavour, slightly spicy and sour, with hints of almond. Greenish-yellow in color. Comes from the eastern part of the provincia of Badajoz in Extremadura.
DO Baena uses olives of the Hojiblanca, Picual, and Lechín varieties. Has a fruity, slightly bitter aroma and flavour. Color ranges frfom greenish-yellow to golden green. Produced in the southeastern part of the province of Cordoba.
DO Les Garrigues uses olives of the Arbequina (90%) and Verdiell varieties. Has a bitter almond flavour, thus making it a fruity oil. Green color is a result of the early olive picking season. Comes from the southern part of the provincia of Lleida in Catalunia.
DO Priego de Cordoba uses olives of the Picado, Hojiblanca, and Picual varieties. Has an intense fruity aroma with hints of apple and almond. Has a slightly bitter taste with a tang of spice at the end. Comes from the province of Córdoba.
DO Sierra Magina uses olives of the Picual variety. The resulting oil is extra virgin, with an acidity level of less than 5%. Color ranges from yellow to bright green. Fragrant aroma, fruity flavour, slightly bitter. Comes from the southern part of Jaén province.
DO Sierra Segura primarily uses olives of the Picual variety (95%), but also uses the Verdala, Royal, and Manzanillo de Jaén varieties in smaller quantities. Yellowish-green in color, aromatic, slightly bitter flavour. Maximum of 1% acitidity. Comes from the northeastern part of the province of Jaén.
DO Siruana uses olives of the Arbequina, Royal, and Murrot varieties. Oils have a maximum acidity of 5%. The sweet oils of this D.O., a result of later olive collection, are green, while the fruity oils, a result of earlier collection, are yellow. Fuller, bitter almond flavour or light, sweeter flavour. Comes from the province of Tarragon.
Olive Oils types
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The olive oil with an absolutely impeccable taste and aroma; fruity; the acidity, expressed in oleic acid, may not exceed 1%. Extra Virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries. Used on salads, added at the table to soups and stews and for dipping.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is obtained only from the olive, the fruit of the olive tree, using solely mechanical or other physical means in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It excludes oils obtained by the use of solvents or reesterification methods, and those mixed with oils from other sources. It can be qualified as a natural product, and virgin olive oil can have a Designation of Origin when it meets the specific characteristics associated with a particular region. Virgin olive oils can have the following designations and classifications depending on their organoleptic (taste and aroma) and analytic characteristics (the degree of acidity refers to the proportion of free fatty acids, not to the taste)
Virgin Olive Oils
The result of the second pressing. Perfect flavor and aroma, maximum acidity (oleic acid) of 2g/100g - 2% with maximum peroxide value mequiv 02/kg of 20.
Ordinary or Semi-Fine Virgin Olive Oil
Good flavor and aroma, maximum acidity (oleic acid) of 3.3g/100g - 3.3% or less. Ordinary virgin olive oil maintains the purity of the fruit´s flavor, aroma, and vitamins. Recommended for frying or where flavor is not wanted or needed.
Lampante Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil with an acidity of more than 3.3% and/or whoseorganoleptic characteristics have defects. Not fit for direct consumption. Always refined; you won’t see oil for sale in this classification.
Organic Olive Oil
Spanish organic olive oil is produced from olives that have not been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The olives are always hand-picked and never touch the ground. The resulting oil is not filtered so as to preserve the freshest flavour.
First Press and First Cold Pressed Olive Oil
First press is no longer an official definition for olive oil. A century ago, oil was pressed in screw or hydraulic presses. The paste was subjected to increasingly high pressures with subsequent degradation in the flavor of the oil. Today the vast majority of oil is made in continuous centrifugal presses. There is no first or second pressing.
Cold pressed is not a reliably regulated label description for olive oil. Cold pressed olive oil is made by milling the olives into paste under cold conditions then malaxation or mixing of the paste for 30 to 60 minutes with the addition of heat via steam or hot water jackets to raise it up to body temperature. Heating the paste increases yield but degrades flavor so heating beyond that point would degrade the flavor of the oil to the point where it would not qualify as extra virgin. After the oil is pressed out of the paste, the dry pomace (pits and flesh) is sometimes sold to refineries where steam and solvents are used to remove any residual oil.
Refined or Pure Olive Oil
This is obtained by refining virgin olive oils which have a high acidity level and/or organoleptic defects which are eliminated after refining. An oil with maximum acidity of .5g/100g - .5% with maximum peroxide value mequiv 02/kg of 10. Over 50% of the oil produced in the Mediterranean area is of such poor quality that it must be refined to produce an edible product. Note that no solvents have been used to extract the oil but it has been refined with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. An obsolete equivalent is “pure olive oil.”
Lite or Light Olive Oil
In the U.S., flavorless and often low quality oil is sold as “lite” or “light” oil for a premium price. The “light” designation refers to flavor, not caloric content, as all olive oil has the same amount of calories. There is no official definition of lite or light.
The acidity level of olive oil is important because they help to determine the fatty acids the oil contains. Extra Virgin oils have an acidity level of 1% or less; Virgin oils of 3.3% or less. Generally speaking, the acidity of an oil obtained from healthy, ripe olives is very low, ranging from 0.3 to 0.5% and always less than 1%. Oil that has an acidity higher than that could mean that there are defects in the oil, which is usually the result of the olives not being pressed quickly enough after collection, the oil being stored at elevated temperatures or being overexposed to light and air during the production process. However, olive oil with an acidity of less than one percent does not necessarily mean that it is of higher quality, given that the acidity level could be reduced or eliminated in the refining process. In cases such as this, the beneficial components of the oil disappear along with the acidity. Therefore, it is important to look at other factors, not just the acidity level, when determining the quality of olive oil.
The world of olive oil can be a confusing one if you are not familiar with the definitions used to classify it. Costs depend on these classifications, so before you buy your next bottle, make sure you know what you´re paying for.