An ode to olive oil

Olive oil; it’s a huge part of the Portuguese diet. And a tasty one. Connoisseurs sample different varieties of oil like they would taste different wines. Some of the best extra virgin olive oils in the world are produced here in the Algarve, in Moncarapacho. In Monte Rosa you’ll find modern machines, but ancient traditions.

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine December 2015

“I don’t use butter. Of course I don’t. I use olive oil: you can’t do anything without it in the kitchen.” António Duarte of Monte Rosa is surprised at even being asked. “I use it every day: fry in it, season salad, add it to fish, meat and soups. It’s part of the Mediterranean way of life, all our dishes contain olive oil.”

And yet Monte Rosa started producing the oil almost by chance. First orange trees were growing on the land in the eastern Algarve, but when in 1997 and 1998 two consecutive dry years meant 1000 glasses of water were needed to produce one glass of orange juice, founder Detlev von Rosen thought it time for a change. Looking for trees that could go long without water, the choice was between almond, fig, carob or olive trees. The latter were chosen, first for ornamental reasons. However, all these trees produced olives and after pressing it appeared the oil was of such a good quality that continuing this business made sense.


Olive oil is produced by following the same steps as the Romans did many years ago

Now, on 20 hectares of ground, four different varieties of trees are grown, producing four different types of olive oil. The juice is extracted cold and pressed out of the olives one variety at a time. The work done at Monte Rosa could be described as traditional farm type agriculture; the olives are all picked by hand, the company produces its own fertilizers and everything is recycled. Carbon footprint is zero: the only thing leaving the premises is the olive oil. Still, the olive oil isn’t certified biological, the reason for that being, according to António, that the certification process takes five years and is very expensive.

Pressing is done inside a reconstructed old Roman mill. Olive oil is produced by following the same steps as the Romans once did, so many years ago. Traditional, yes. But those expecting hand-squeezing like happened in the 13th century BC will be disappointed. Although the old grinding stones can still be found outside the mill as decoration, inside modern machines have taken their place to speed up the process. The average time between picking and filtering? Three hours. “Nowadays you have to adhere to strict rules. It’s a food product after all. Yes, we could still press the old fashioned way, but it would take longer and thus not be good for the quality as the two main enemies of olive oil are oxygen and light,” António explains.


I’ve tried chocolate with olive oil and even ice cream made out of olive oil

Together, Ruslan Levytskyy and Luis Camoês unload dozens of boxes out of the truck that has just arrived. The olives are weighed and put into a washing machine, 200 kilos at a time, to take out dust, dirt, pieces of branches and leaves. They’re then crushed into small pieces by a mill and further crushed into a paste by a larger granite stone mill. All the olives’ stones are left in as they contain high doses of anti-oxidants and vitamins. After crushing, the paste is put into a blender for about 45 minutes, which releases the oil from the flesh, and put into a centrifuge which naturally separates the olive oil from the water and leftovers. Finally, the oil is passed into tanks where it’s decanted and any leftovers are filtered out with a paper filter. It’s stored in airtight containers, so the natural flavours and aromas are allowed to develop.

These flavours depend on the variety. There’s the suave Verdeal with a fruity sensation of grass and almonds, the fresh and sweet Maçanilha, the herbal and pungent Picual and the most spicy and pungent of the assortment, the Cobrançosa. “My favourite oil? That all depends on what I’m eating,” says Ruslan. “On salads I’ll use the Maçanilha, if I’ve made a vegetable soup I’ll add some Picual and for my fried egg in the morning I always have the Cobrançosa. The flavours are incredibly distinct; with making mayonnaise for example, if you use a different type of oil, it’s a different sauce. I’ve tried chocolate with olive oil and even ice cream made out of olive oil. For me, there are no limits in the kitchen.”


There are over 700 different varieties of olives in the world

This year, about 10,000 litres olive oil have been produced at Monte Rosa, which is very little comparing to other producers. However, the emphasis lies on quality, not on quantity. “We only press our own olives, it’s the only way we can control the entire process and ensure the quality,” says António. You won’t find this oil in a supermarket – not only aren’t the guys into mass production, they also simply don’t have enough olives for it. For one litre of oil, you’ll need about 7 kilos of olives. That’s between 1000 and 3000 pieces, depending on their weight. Whereas sometimes people add lemons, rosemary, or other herbs to flavour the oil, this is a no-go at Monte Rosa. “We don’t add anything to the olives,” explains António. “There are over 700 different varieties of olives in the world. That’s a lot of different tastes to choose from, so why should we add any other taste? We believe in a pure product.”

This strategy seems to work as Monte Rosa’s olive oils have won many awards and prizes. At the New York International Olive Oil Competition, the largest and most important quality competition for extra virgin olive oils, all varieties won gold medals for three consecutive years. And also in Japan and Copenhagen the scores were high and awards of excellence were given to the small farm from the Algarve. António reveals their secret: “It’s all about consistency and taking care of the trees all year. And being rigorous about the hygiene in the whole process. Imagine what would happen if we’d have one rotten olive in a tank of 1000 litres. It’d spoil the entire tank!”


The trees are the ones in charge; they tell us when they’re ready

Taking care of the trees includes monitoring (do they look healthy, do they maybe need more or less irrigation) and taking samples of the soil (does it contain enough nutrients) as well as spotting potential diseases and trying to prevent them. Every day someone is present on the estate, looking after the trees and their wellbeing. António explains: “The oil is made inside the tree, not inside the mill. In the mill, the only thing we do is taking the oil out of the olives and trying not to spoil it. The trees are the ones in charge; they tell us when they’re ready.”

Seeing as not all trees are equally ready, green and black olives are mixed. This however, doesn’t influence the taste of the oil. Normally only four people are working at the estate, but during harvest time, an additional crew of 28 are hired, the same people who have been doing it for the last three years. António: “First we pick only a few olives, observe them and smell them to see if they’re good. It’s a process of trial and error, but every year we get a bit more knowledgeable.” Picking starts mid-September and lasts until the beginning of November. A whole variety is harvested at once; Verdeal, the most suave oil, is last.


After smelling, swirl the oil around in your mouth and inhale some air between your teeth to taste the bitterness and pungency

There are special conditions for extra virgin olive oil that’s entered into competitions. The oil has to have three positive attributes: fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness, aka pungency. It can’t have any defects, which means it can’t be rancid or taste of popcorn or potato peel. (Yes, laugh if you wish, but these are on the official defect list). Furthermore, a maximum acidity level of 0.8% is allowed. Testing is done by a laboratory analysis and a sensorial test, carried out by a certified panel of judges. Officially, tasting should be done by holding a cup filled with a tiny amount of oil in your hands, covering it to keep the aromas in. After smelling (read: inhaling the aroma with closed eyes) swirl the oil around in your mouth and inhale some air between your teeth to taste the bitterness and pungency. Unlike wine testing, there’s no need to spit out the oil, just swallow.

Unfortunately because of the fact it’s heavily used, in countries such as Portugal olive oil is considered a common product. This results in most people not wanting to pay a lot for the oil and thus automatically reaching for one of the bigger, cheaper and more famous brands. A shame, and a bit illogical according to António. “Most people won’t have any problem going to a wine shop and paying 20 euros for a bottle of wine which they’ll drink in a single evening. Yet a bottle of really good extra virgin olive oil also costs about 20 euros and will last you for months.”


How to best enjoy your olive oil – António Duarte gives 4 tips

  1. Keep it fresh
    Store it away from light, at room temperature. Normally olive oil will keep for three years. However, at Monte Rosa they add a best-before date of only 18 months. When buying a large bottle, for example one containing 3 or 5 litres of olive oil, transfer all the contents directly into smaller bottles once you’re home. The smaller bottles that you won’t be using soon can best be kept in the fridge to preserve the quality and taken out a few hours before you use a new bottle.
  2. Use it in different ways
    – Just dip some traditional bread, still warm from baking if possible, in the oil. (Even local restaurants already sometimes offer olive oil as an appetizer with bread, instead of fish pate or butter).
    – Sprinkle a bit on top of a grilled fish.
    – During winter, put a splash of olive oil on top of a soup.
    – Basically, experiment with it as much as possible.
  3. Organise a private tasting
    If you’re having friends over, organise your own private tasting with three different types of nice extra virgin olive oil and nice bread. You’ll be surprised at how different types of olive oil can have very distinct flavours. Extra fun? Organise a blind tasting: can you guess which oil it is?
  4. Use it for frying as well
    One of the most common misconceptions is that you shouldn’t use olive oil for baking or frying. It’s nonsense as olive oil is a natural fat which can withstand temperatures of up to 215˚C. You fry at 180˚C. Not the quality is lost, but a bit of the aroma. Frying with olive oil is way healthier than frying with butter or other oils. However, instead of using really good and expensive extra virgin oil, use good quality virgin oil or a cheaper extra virgin. Save the really good extra virgin to finish a cooked dish or season raw food, like salads.


See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine December 2015


Posted in Features, Food.