The rain makes it feel like November, when the majority of Spain’s olive oil producers begin the harvest to make extra virgin olive oil. Yet it’s October, and we’re watching the gathering of Arbequina olives in Belianes, very close to the city of Lleida in central Catalonia.
These beauties are mostly green, with a few already changing to purple. Jose Ramón Morera, one of the owners of the small company Camins de Verdor, is finishing the harvest of these green olives for Umami, their premium line of olive oil. An absorbing deep green color, the organic extra virgin olive oil is intensely aromatic and fruity, made from early harvested oils that are mechanically pressed using a traditional cold extraction method.
Out of the 30,000 or so tons of olives that will be collected in Catalonia this year (in all of Spain there will be around one million, depending on the weather conditions), only a small percentage are harvested early for the production of this kind of premium olive oil. By using greener olives, much less oil is extracted, but what is extracted stimulates the senses more than regular extra virgin olive oil and has all the benefits of live polyphenols and antioxidants.
Currently, most producers of high-quality extra virgin olive oil in Spain aim for a balance between quantity and quality, harvesting around November – this usually guarantees a good amount of oil with enough polyphenols. Harvesting earlier decreases the amount by a third or even a half, but opens the doors to the powerful polyphenols of green olives, and all the fresh flavors and aromas that come with them.
Camins de Verdor is one of a few really excellent producers in Catalonia currently offering this fresh expression of young olives. Josep María Escribà, Martí Bergadà and José Ramón Morera decided to establish this small company in 2009, after having worked at a traditional cooperative focused on harvesting and selling olives for bulk olive oil. Their vision was to create a high-quality, organic extra virgin olive oil with all the local terroire of Arbequina olives. The fresh, green personality of these olives shines through in the two oils they produce: the more traditional Camins de Verdor and the premium Umami.
“We wanted control over the entire process, even if this means we have to pay more for it.”
For the trio, it wasn’t a difficult decision to harvest some of their olives so early. “In the later harvests, the characteristics that we look for in the oil – the greenness, the fruitiness, the bitterness and the spiciness – are not nearly as prevalent,” says Morera. “And there are double the polyphenols, the antioxidants with therapeutic properties, in olives at this early point rather than later.”
To ensure high-quality oil with all of these characteristics, the olives are collected from the trees using mechanical vibration – a shaker mounted on a tractor makes the trees vibrate, and a large umbrella, also attached to the tractor, catches the olives that fall from the branches. For Morera, this system is even better than harvesting by hand because the olives are never pressed, touched or damaged, and can be transported to the mill in perfect condition. Once there, the olives are separated from the leaves and branches, washed, grinded and filtered; two hours after the harvest, the first stream of oil is running out of the mill.
“We wanted control over the entire process,” he explains, “even if this means we have to pay more for it. We can cultivate and harvest our own olives in the best way possible, grind them in our mill immediately and guarantee that extraction is done at the exact point when the olives are freshest.”
They currently have more than 60 hectares of olive trees and are increasing production every year. Only 20,000-25,000 bottles of Umami are made each year, and already there are several shops calling to ask when the first batches will be ready to send. In fact, our visit happens to fall on the last day Morera is harvesting Arbequina olives for the company’s Umami olive oil, and the first bottles of the season are newly ready. As he gives us some to taste, Morera explains that every year Umami only has 0.01 percent acidity (the less acidity, the better the oil) and is filtered to prevent oxidization of the sediment.
When we hold it up to the light, the oil’s green color is extremely concentrated – hypnotic, even. As always, an intense herbal and powerfully fresh flavor profile lingers in the mouth. But this year, we’re thrilled to taste a fruity flavoring that points to – of all things – banana, as well as artichoke, a discreet hint of tomato (not quite as strong as in previous years), a subtle bitter touch and the soft spicy tickles of the live polyphenols at the end. All you need is a piece of bread to enjoy an olive oil as fresh and luscious as this one.
During late October and November, it’s possible to find several early harvest extra virgin olive oils in Barcelona, usually in specialized and gourmet shops and colmados, the city’s historic groceries. In addition to the early harvested oils like Umami that are filtered for long preservation (although Umami can last for up to a year, we tend to empty our bottles in a month or two), you can also find excellent fresh, unfiltered Catalan oils from different areas such as Priorat, L’Empordà, Les Garrigues or Siurana. These, however, must be consumed immediately – within a few months at most – before the sediment starts to oxidize.
Editor’s note: It’s Harvest Week at Culinary Backstreets, and we’re sharing some of our favorite stories, past and present, about the harvest.