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Steven’s thoughts on olive oil, vinegars, food and travel.

Magnificent Siurana | From Olive Oil Times | By Steven Jenkins

TRAVEL NOTES ~

I AM JUST BACK from seven full days in Siurana and the Priorat. Seven full days, five of them high in the bush, far from Reus, the Siurana’s capitol, and Tarragona, Reus’ sister city. As Modena is to Bologna, Reus is to Tarragona. Five full days as opposed to an obligatory touch-and-go with someone who works for someone who works for someone else at some distinguished mill in some region located somewhere in the Mediterranean Basin. There are visits of mere tangential propriety, and then there are visits of depth and substance, and this visit was definitely the latter.

I do this a lot over the years, but this trip was by far the most substantial of all my time in groves and mills.

The Siurana region of Catalonia (Catalunya, in Catalan) has got to be the most heartachingly gorgeous thing I will ever see, and I have seen some pretty gorgeous places. My favorite places seem always to be olive groves. The Priorat, surrounded completely by Siurana, is what I can only describe as the rarified, most visually intense part of Siurana, and here I must try to curb my hyperbole. I’m sorry — I doubt I will succeed.

Priorat, as I am sure you know, is where a lot of the greatest red wine made comes from. Priorat wine stands as an embarrassment of Catalan riches, in addition to the Arbequina olive oil that defines Siurana. For the record, there are two other indigenous cultivars contributing but a fraction to the total Siurana olive oil production.

I ate a lot of Arbequina olives on this trip, and you surely know how delicious they are. I mean, I love olives, but Arbequina cured olives have to be my absolute favorite because of their intense nuttiness and the indescribable sway they hold over me, more than any other cured olive. These were crisper than any I recall. I love a crisp, cured olive. I love Arbequina olives even more than I love Lucques and Tanche (Nyons) olives, and that’s a mouthful, because Lucques and Tanches are superlative.


But I never tasted Arbequina early harvest olive oil as fine as that from the mill at La Palma d’Ebre, just outside the Priorat to the west. Thick, buttery, NEW oil that shrieked with personality, rusticity, tomato and black pepper that I hadn’t experienced in any Arbequina over the years. I would have guessed it was Picual! Surely this was not subtle, sweet, nutty Arbequina!

This oil is stored in ‘trulls’ – deep wells in the floor of a room that date back to the time when Arabs ruled the countryside, the 700s. These trulls got their name from the ‘trolls’ that supposedly, if not definitely, resided within them. Like a troll under a bridge!

Pere Mateo, full disclosure, the executive director of the Siurana cooperative UNIO and its subsidiary Olis De Catalunya, is a personal friend of mine for more than a decade, having been introduced to me by my dear friend Bill Devin who died almost a decade ago. Bill Devin is a story all by himself. He was responsible for the export of the great Catalan wines husbanded by Pere and his co-op, as well as for the grand Siurana DOP olive oil that Fairway imports for our 15 stores.

In addition to the Priorat wine, Pere’s company is responsible for the quality and export of the region’s Garnacha blanca, which has rocketed to rockstar status, and is becoming evermore sold, drunk and talked about. Also the dreamy Montsant red wine I personally buy by the case these days. Montsant is the north side of the Priorat, and the mountains that give the wine its name are particularly imposing, looming and beautiful.

And, oh my heavens, will I ever be importing for Fairway Market the co-op’s Siurana Marcona and Largueta almonds, and the hazelnuts, all of which are packed roasted in flat, vacuum-packed, clear plastic sleeves that are beyond irresistible. I am going to sell the heck out of these Siurana nuts.

Pere, his #1 man Oscar and I were all over Siurana. Oscar is responsible for the export of the wines of Olis De Catalunya. We were in groves, wineries and olive oil mills at more villages than one should be able to remember, and each of them was notable. I could have been making one of those superficial visits, but instead we were on a mission. We wanted to visit Siurana’s most talented olive farmers and winemakers, each of whom is a part of the 20,000-farmer co-op I referred to.

And we did.

We spent hours at Poboleda with Jordi, the smartest winemaker I ever talked to. Jordi’s Priorat red is called Llicorella, which identifies it as a product of the shale of his severely sloping groves. This can hardly be referred to as soil, this shale. Jordi says you can’t make great Priorat wine from vineyards that aren’t on shale slopes. It reminded me of the vineyards of Cote-Rotie and Val d’Aosta. Remarkable terrain. This black, crumbly shale — never saw anything like it.

We were at Torroja, at Gratallops where Oscar and I had a lunch I shall never forget – a perfectly composed salad with pomegranate and an Arbequina and apple balsamic vinaigrette, a squash soup I could have made a meal of, and a plate of bacalla (salt cod, the Catalan spelling; bacalao in Castilian Spanish) and roasted leek I could have sworn it was fresh cod.

At Els Guiamets, at Masroig, at Falset (the capitol of the Priorat), at Escaladei, the fascinating ruins and remarkable site chosen for the oldest monastery in Catalonia. Carthusian monks first arrived at this site in the 1200s, and the stone monastery was standing by 1500. This architectural wonder and archaeological treasure trove I found to be absolutely stunning. I am no more riveted by Segesta in Western Sicily or by Carthage in Tunisia.

We hung out with the vinegarmakers at Mollerussa, just east of Lleida (Lerida, in Spanish). The Badia family, Agusti the father, about my age (64), and his daughters Marta and Judith. Their facility is old, old, old, and beautiful and fascinating, and what they have done with vinegar is like nothing I have ever experienced. I am a self-confessed vinegar freak. I adore good vinegar, and I appreciate the making of it as much as I appreciate the making of olive oil and wine.

The Badia family should patent their process, and if I tried to explain it to you now, we would lose the thread of this essay. I import their entire range of vinegars – Moscatell, Vermouth (the Catalan production of vermouth is one of the benchmarks — one of the defining virtues of Catalonia. Catalans love Vermouth, Cava, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and I cannot wait for the arrival of their ‘bittersweets’ — so named because of the Badia family’s addition of a certain measure of Merlot wine must and Riesling wine must to these wine vinegars. Much as the price and quality of Modenese balsamic vinegar is determined and measured by the quantity of Lambrusco wine grape must combined with balsamic vinegar, it is the must that gives these vinegars their depth of fragrance and flavor.

Here at Mollerussa it was explained to me that Agusti Badia’s great-great grandfather was one of many in the area who traveled by horse cart to Barcelona for the 1888 exposition in order to abscond with some of the tons of iron brought there by Gustave Eiffel in his attempt to persuade the city to commission the construction of Eiffel’s tower. They thought the notion of a tower was strange, and unmoved, they refused. So Eiffel went to the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889, and the rest is history. The Badia family vinegar facility has Eiffel iron holding it up and all across the ceiling.

I want to tell you more, but this report is too long already, and you have been very patient. Last points must be made:

Reus is one handsome, sophisticated city of around 100,000 Catalan souls. Tarragona, replete with its marvelous Roman antiquity, is slightly larger, and at least as handsome, and has a rambla that leads to, and ends on, a dramatic promenade high above the sea. The citizens of Reus are as competitive with, and dismissive of, Tarragona as the Modenese are of Bologna. Reus is where Gaudi was born, and the private house he was born in announces the fact with a striking civic exterior placard — also has a sign put up by the building’s owners that reads in Catalan, “This is a private home. Please do not ring the bell.”


Barcelona is even more captivating today than it has been in each of the 25 years I’ve been spending time there, often twice a year. Pere took us to his pal Daniel Rueda’s pintxo joint called Tapeo, just down the Barri Gòtic block that houses the Picasso Museum. This tapas bar is such a local hero that you need a reservation. A reservation for a tapas bar! Of all of the tapas bars I have frequented from San Sebastian to Sevilla, this Tapeo blew my socks off like no other. Daniel Rueda is a rockstar. Sweetbreads with fresh ceps (cepes, porcini, steinpilze). Pork short ribs with a mustard and honey reduction. Flattened squares of grilled leek laid out in a sort of checkerboard fashion. His Catalan desserts are like none anywhere else in Catalonia, or all of Spain, for that matter.

That being said, I am defenseless against sweetbreads, short ribs and leeks, I must tell you. And, yes – I consumed more than my share of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. At every opportunity, to be sure. And pa amb tomàquet! Tomato and raw garlic-rubbed bread drizzled with olive oil. A way of life. Anchovies from Escala. Siurana olive oil. Is this the world’s finest?

https://www.oliveoiltimes.com/reviews-opinions/travel-notes-magnificent-siurana/44267

Michelle Sims
THE SMEAR

I know well many millers and farmers and grove owners who are olive oil people. This is just as I know many cheesemakers in Europe and North America. My knowledge and time spent with these folks is the joy of my career, definitely the most wonderful part of it.

As regards some of them it took several visits to forge a bond; others became my friends right from the get-go. Certainly common interests — cheese, olives, olive oil — make it easy to want to like each other. And doubtless the fact that my prospective new friends had ‘doing business’ in mind. But not necessarily. I find that anyone with an ardent passion for what they do will respond to someone such as myself (who displays an ardent admiration for what they do). And in this case I am referring to growing olives that result in olive oil, just as I admired so many cheesemakers.

So what I am clumsily trying to establish here is that I know a lot of olive oil people who are simply the best people you could ever want to know. I’m talking about people who have such a passion and commitment to what they do, usually what their parents and indeed their grandparents and generations before, did, that the notion of fraudulent olive oil is as foreign to them as the moons of Neptune.

It simply would never occur to them.

You have doubtless heard or read about tainted, seed oil-blended (or worse), fake extra-virgin olive oil being sold in America. A few of the biggest producers — Europe-based, global-interest, multi-national food conglomerates —  whose olive oil brands are found in supermarkets across the country — have been caught red-handed having packed olive oil that was absolutely fraudulent. I refer to cheap olive oil no decent cook or informed consumer would ever allow in their shopping cart and kitchen. These companies were prosecuted and found guilty, and paid a huge price for their perfidy, and they well deserved it. They were Greek men, Italian men, Turkish, Algerian, Moroccan. Nary a woman. They were men who are crooks. 

There are crooks in every endeavor, every walk of life, every business.

You surely know better than to shop at bottom-feeding supermarket chains. You further surely reject those brands found in every crummy supermarket that couldn’t care less about the quality of the foods sold there. So this really doesn’t concern us then, I suppose.

WRONG.

It mightily concerns us.

You see, this widely reported malfeasance was seen as a huge opportunity for some other producers of olive oil. It was a classic case of ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’.

What a great time some of the California and Australian olive oil producers have had lately! They have clamped their canines down on Mediterranean Basin-origin olive oil as a whole entity (which does not exist! Olive oils are as different from each other as wines or people!) in order to castigate it, ridicule and debase it, create distrust and utterly libel it, all in a fraudulent attempt to capture a market share, wrest it away from Mediterranean Basin olive oil. A market share stolen, unearned and shamelessly cashed in.

It is this practice that is fraudulent. 

A few well-placed, virtually viral, widely reported upon articles and essays about fake extra-virgin olive oil had the effect of consumers looking gimlet-eyed at not just European olive oil, but at ALL olive oil. These ill-researched essays and articles, some of them, were literally commissioned by groups that had an ax to grind. These inflammatory words were written by writers who didn’t just not do their homework, their due diligence, but were driven by an economic interest to take a side that was as phony as the olive oil they decried. “But the olive oil WAS phony! You admit it, Steven!”  

If you found yourself at home with a bottle of olive oil that had no fragrance, no spice, tasted stale, looked limpid, you should blame no one but yourself. How could you be so careless? It’s hardly rocket science to discern, to make an immediate judgment, of an olive oil in your hand that probably or definitely isn’t worthy of you.

One of the joys of my time behind a retail counter was educating people on how to shop. As I learned, I tried to teach. It was fun for me and for my customers, they loved walking up to any cheese counter and not feeling intimidated!

But a lot of people are incapable of being discerning shoppers. They buy the stale oil and use it up and maybe even develop a taste for it.   

This doesn’t in any way excuse the Greek men and Italian men who took advantage of them. My point is that the Mediterranean Basin — Greece, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain, Catalonia, etc. — is home to many of the finest people in the world who have been working their groves and creating exquisite olive oils for generations, and the notion of fraud is totally foreign to them. It is something that simply never would occur to them.

So they have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of people who decided they deserved a bigger market share.

Tom Mueller’s book, EXTRA VIRGINITY, came out to considerable fanfare a few years ago. In it, Mr. Mueller devoted a great portion of his well-written book to the outrage of phony olive oil. It was well-researched and factual, but my enormous quarrel with it is as how it was so one-sided, and curiously omitted the facts about the ‘other’ side. I put ‘other’ in quotes because the two sides were made up. There really are no ‘sides’. The apparent good guys according to Tom Mueller are the Californians. No way, he reports, that a California olive oil producer would ever market fraudulent olive oil. NOOOO, he intoned. That domain is owned by the Europeans. They are the crowd you must beware of, while failing to suggest that maybe some of those nice Europeans who export olive oil you can trust, are many — not just many, but literally ALL of the serious olive oil producers who may have just been victimized by this very book written by him.

Tom Mueller impressed me, and I am the first to tell you he may be just as good a guy as I think he is. We had a back-and-forth via email and telephone, and I was pretty strident in my criticism of his book. I roughed him up pretty good, and I must say he took it like a man. He downright admitted that perhaps he had been a bit unfair to the wonderful people I know so well. 

A bit unfair is putting it mildly.

If you take anything away from having read this long-winded diatribe, and I pray that you did read this far, is that you must understand that so much of what you read about olive oil on the internet is absolute nonsense. I would further suggest that much of what you read on the internet about ANY subject should be subject to doubt. Your doubt. 

And so much of what you’ve read, or will read, ANYWHERE, about olive oil is also balderdash — pap written by people who have no knowledge of olive oil whatsoever. They are merely regurgitating misinformation they acquired from some other source, some boob who had an ax to grind, a phony issue that makes them appear incisive, noble. 

It takes huge piles of money to make perfect olive oil. Nobody with a lot of money wrapped up in a foodstuff as capricious and difficult as olives and olive oil, an investment in a foodstuff they love, is going to jeopardize the effort and result by messing with it, by tainting it. And nobody who has worked the family farm longer than memory knows, would consider degrading their most precious product.

Steven Jenkins
NEW YORK CITY FOOD SHOP HISTORY AND MY AMBIVALENCE TOWARDS ASTRONOMICALLY PRICED OLIVE OILS

Here’s a little New York City food history.

Almost forty years ago, I was the very first in the US, not just New York, to offer at retail the very first Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil. I was employed by the great Henry Lambert of Pasta & Cheese fame. In those days the fresh pasta biz was a hobby for Henry. His day job was president of local mogul Saul Steinberg’s real estate arm Continental Cities.

Stocking Henry’s shops with stuff I loved meant, of course, that that oil was the very first Tuscan olive oil to come to North America. I bought it from a customer of mine, a well-known wine biz person named Leo Shaw. He was a mainstay at Frederick Wildman, the prominent wine importer. Leo imported a certain estate’s Chianti, and on a whim, the estate’s olive oil, too, from a Tuscan man named Piero Stucchi Prenetti whose wife was Lorenza de Medici, and, man, did they play off of that. I am firm in my belief that it was their Badia A Coltibuono wine and olive oil that had a great deal to do with the smug, pseudo-superiority and snobbery that was exuded then and now by most Tuscans, aided and abetted by the powerful and glorious career of restaurateur Pino Luongo, Mr. Tuscany, of New York and Chicago.

For a long time that ridiculously over-priced olive oil was only sold at Henry’s Pasta & Cheese Manhattan pasta shops.

When I left Pasta & Cheese for the Upper Westside’s Fairway Market in 1980 I soon stocked more than half a dozen Tuscan olive oils.
But, Tuscany.

If I was from Tuscany I’d probably be pretty smug about it, too. I mean, we’re talking Florence, Pisa,  Siena. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, look at the place.

Tuscany  Tuscany  Tuscany

Toscana is a sprawling region, huge. There is no shortage of available arable land suited for olive groves. Yet comparatively little of it is dedicated to olives,  as is the case for the South of France, whereas, for instance, Greece, fully 60% of the country’s farmland is given over to olives. Yet the fact is undeniable that the market for Tuscan olive oil is strong, and demand exceeds supply. Therefore the price for it has long been, and remains, high — higher than any other olive oil in the Mediterranean basin and for that matter everywhere else in the world.

The Larnianone estate’s groves produce olive oil so fine you will weep. Though goodness gracious, is it expensive.  But compare for yourself. It’s not nearly so expensive as all those other Tuscan oils. And you want beautiful Tuscany?  Here you go. This is where our oil comes from.

On the other hand, Olive Oil Jones is thrilled to have witnessed and abetted the dramatic rise in quality of so many fine regional Spanish olive oils. All heroically superior and delicious.

Try this:  Unscrew the cap of a liter bottle of Olive Oil Jones olive oil. Any one of them. Raise the bottle top to one of your ears. I only have one ear, but that is another story.

As you can hear the ocean when you heft a conch shell to your ear, our olive oil sings, not music, but the alternating SHHHH and SSSS of rising and falling Mediterranean breezes passing through the leaves of olive trees.  Use your imagination.

Now smell the oil. Can you define it? Try. And never forget:  You smell before you taste; it’s automatic. Your nose will ‘see’ it before your tongue does.

Listening to an Olive Oil Jones olive oil, and then smelling it and tasting it, is a pleasure you may not experience with olive oils purchased at retail or at on-line websites. Those oils are not alive, they’re likely hardly even breathing. Our olive oils are rolling, billowing expressions of exuberance, and you can expect to become spoiled by them. You will find it hard to ever be without them again.

Dark bottles for olive oil are made for commercial olive oils that will have been sitting on bright-light shelves for far too long. That light robs olive oil of vitamins, color, freshness, and contributes mightily toward oxidation, which means ‘stale’ and lifeless. Olive Oil Jones bottles are clear for several reasons:  We want to be able to see our olive oil. And we know your OOJ olive oil will be kept in a dark pantry for most of its contribution to your life. Further, our label is so large it does the job a dark bottle is meant to do. Most important though is our practice, our insistence, that your oil was not put in our bottle until we began to pack your box. That is a very cool fact.
 

Steven Jenkins
THE THING ABOUT EARLY HARVEST OLIVE OIL

Did you know there are styles of olive oil? Big and bold? Yes, most certainly. Gentle? Sweet? Yes, most certainly again.

Big and bold is one thing. Gentle is a legitimate other. But ’sweet’? French people who love Provençale and Languedoc olive oils are catered to by the producers of the French style of olive oil, and they are not the only ones inured to this demonstrably ‘sweet’ style. Sweet olive oil is the result of ripe olives, olives that are purple and black when they are removed from the tree. This is a conscious choice by the grove owner and miller. This is their style. They and their customers are perfectly comfortable with this style of olive oil. Most of them are not even aware that theirs IS a style, nor that harvest time is worth dithering about, that it even makes a difference. Little do they know or appreciate that this difference actually makes ALL the difference in the world. 

But it breaks my heart to not be offering a Provençale oil, or one of a couple of splendid ones from Languecdoc. Not all of them are late-harvests. I can get my hands on killer early-harvest French oil. But, egad, are they expensive. Puts me right off my feedbag. Doesn’t sit well with me. We will likely relent. But not yet. 

It should be known by you Olive Oil Jones people that late harvest olive oil is vastly more plentiful than early harvest olive oil. A ripe olive yields roughly twice and often three times the oil derived from an underripe green olive. The choice and convention of so many olive oil producers for late harvest olives from purplish-black olives is largely one of economics. The more olive oil they produce, the more money they make. Duh. Thus they proceed. So they believe, and indeed in most cases from most groves, this is a fact. And again, this late harvest olive oil is the olive oil they have always and only known, those producers, and those customers — this is the olive oil they were raised on. 

Many, many people who use olive oil, again, not just the French, people from everywhere, within and without the Mediterranean Basin, have a preference for ‘sweet’ olive oil as opposed to spicy, peppery, slightly bitter olive oil. I am sure almost all of them have never even thought about it. 

We have. We think you have. And if you haven’t, it is high time you did.

Welcome to Olive Oil Jones. Again.

Late harvest olive oil is defined by a distinct absence of pepperiness, spiciness. It has none of the incipient, slight bitterness of an early harvest oil. The absence of these characteristics doesn’t mean ‘sweet’ olive oil is bad, or even ‘less good’. It does mean the olive oil has low or barely measurable levels of phenols, mainly the polyphenols, the properties of which are directly associated with health.  Within a week or ten days FROM THE START of the fade from green and beige, ripening silently into the reds and browns, and past them and into the lovely though ominous purples and blacks, the phenol levels do not merely recede. They drop like a rock — like a diver drops off of that three-meter diving platform. And it is those blessed polyphenols that provide the antioxidant benefit, the medical justice warrior that has helped make olive oil such a gastronomic super-hero. The highly celebrated and publicized Ancel Keys-dedicated Mediterranean Diet is predicated and defined by the antioxidant content of olive oil.

So it is that early harvest olive oil has long been established as the reason the Mediterranean Diet has achieved and held onto the honor of global common knowledge to wit: ‘how to live the longest life with the least incidence of illness’.

That’s quite an achievement.

But Olive Oil Jones is not so obsessed with, nor is our biz about, the health angle of olive oil. 

It is a given that you must, or should, consume a minimum of 9 grams of fat per day. Which fat you choose to achieve that level of consumption IS, on the other hand, of utmost importance.

It can come from all sorts of food. Food that’s good for you and not so good for you, and food that is downright BAD for you.

The fat you use to cook with, to dress food with, is to our way of thinking one of the most joyous conundrums in this life. You don’t want to be fat, but you have got to have fat! Which to employ? We love bacon fat and lard. Animal fat is one choice. Duck fat. Schmaltz, the fat from chickens. Butter. Who doesn’t love butter!

Olive Oil Jones loves all kinds of fat. No question about it. But we really love olive oil. We love olive oil more than lard, more than butter. We love it more because as angel goddess Patience Gray said, rest her soul, ‘Olive oil conveys a fine flavor to all the food it touches’. Olive oil is the only fat that amplifies the flavors in food, and if there is one thing you can say about me is that I am a graduate and tenured professor of the More Is Better school. 

Olive oil results in more flavor. It is that slight, incipient (love that word!), brilliant touch of bitterness that is the springboard for that triple-reverse twisting double-flip swan dive-entry, the amplification of flavor. 

Sweet olive oil does not provide that diving board. If those ripe olives were harvested and milled properly and promptly without having lain around as is so often the ignorant, dastardly practice, the resultant sweet olive oil will at least have fragrances that are compelling. But those fragrances are a lie. They merely obfuscate the truth. They mask it. Sweet olive is the emperor who has no clothes. 

Sweet olive oil lies on food like a side of lox. 

It serves no purpose other than to grease things up.

This is harsh, and it’s going to make a lot of people mad. But it’s time somebody told you. You see, the international olive oil biz floats upon on the the ocean of olive oil that is produced every year from October to February, and the months in-between that are almost as important as the seasonal harvesting and milling. If the worldwide audience for olive oil began to insist upon nothing but early harvest olive oil the industry would implode.