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Recently, I had the immense good fortune to travel to Spain with a group of fellow designers and our spouses as guests of Cosentino, the manufacturer of Silestone, Eco, Sensa Granite, Prexury and Dekton counter top materials. In a post in the next couple of weeks, I’ll tell you all about these impressive materials, products, manufacturing facility and what I learned.
But today, I simply must tell you about the most extraordinary lunch we had at Castillo de Canena…
…a castle in the Andalusia region of the Southern part of Spain, and what I discovered about olive oil.
In the midst of a 5 day whirlwind of factory tours, product learning, and seemingly endless banquets with tables piled with food and wine, Patty Dominguez, our intrepid host from Cosentino, shepherded us to the fascinating castle on a hilltop in the village of Canena, which is the family home of the Vaño family, who are award-winning extra-virgin olive oil producers.
The gracious, charming and debonair Francisco Vaño, the 9th generation of his family to carry on the tradition of producing one of the world’s finest olive oils, and the head of the company Castillo de Canena, was our host for lunch in the tasting room of the palace. With the walls of the tasting room plastered with hundreds of articles about the company, I feel quite sure that Señor Vaño, knows his oil.
As I learned, this ain’t yer grocery-store olive-plonk!
Wow. Do you have ANY idea what’s in the olive oil you pick up at the grocery store for a couple of bucks a liter?! I can honestly say that I don’t think you do, and you need to hear this.
The exquisite and assertive taste of Castillo de Canena olive oil, which is pure, unadulterated and meticulously produced, is of a smooth, buttery olive, with a slight peppery bite. The Arbequino oil is all that with the addition of a delectable, smokey flavor, which has been cold-infused.
Although I’ve been a devotée of olive oil for years, convinced of its health benefits, when I compared the exceptional aroma and flavor of Castillo de Canena to what I had been buying at the grocery store, I was horrified to learn I HAVE NOT BEEN BUYING PURE OLIVE OIL.
And if you’ve been buying olive oil at the grocery store, you haven’t either.
So then, what the heck have we been feeding our families?!
It seems that every time I open a newspaper or lifestyle magazine, articles cite numerous studies proving that all the information we learned about heart-healthy fat and oil in our diets in the last decade was disastrously wrong. Not only is a fat-free diet not a healthful way to live, but the oils that used to be touted as heart-healthy such as those made from Canola, Soybean, Corn and Safflower, as well as hydrogenated oils found in margarines and processed foods are known to be detrimental to health, increasing the rate of coronary heart and cardiovascular diseases, as well as deaths from all causes.
In the wake of this information becoming widely available, olive oil emerged as the gold standard, not only in gastronomic circles, but in the realm of health as well, providing anti-oxidants which help to neutralize the free radicals in the body that attack healthy cells and can be a contributing factor to accelerated effects of aging, cancer, heart disease, decline in brain function and the immune system.
Consequently, world-wide demand for olive oil skyrocketed, and far exceeded the available supply, leading to huge scandals being exposed in various countries where large scale smuggling rings have been caught exporting millions of liters of oil that that they label as Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, but has either been doctored with other substandard oils or faked altogether. In one American study it was found that as much as 69% of imported European olive oil sold as extra virgin in the supermarkets in the USA wasn’t what it claimed to be, as revealed in 2011 by researchers at the University of California, Davis and the Australian Oils Research Lab. Author Tom Mueller presents a powerful indictment of today’s lax protections against fake and even toxic food products and the supply of fraudulent olive oils in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
Find the book here: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
Mass-market oils are often extracted from their source with toxic solvents such as Hexane. These oils then undergo harsh treatment to remove the solvent. More chemicals, very high heat, and straining are used to deodorize and bleach the oils — rendering them inferior in taste, fragrance, appearance and especially nutritional quality. It can be oils such as these that are being either passed off as extra-virgin olive oil with the addition of flavoring and coloring, or are added to olive oils to stretch the supply, with as little as 5% of the real stuff in the mix.
Over the years, the problem has been that anyone could label their product as Extra Virgin Olive Oil whether it was or not, because in the USA, although the law states that companies must disclose on the label that its oil is a blend, up until 2011, there hadn’t been any federal rules that define what extra virgin olive oil actually was. Although the USDA has now developed standards, they are voluntary and where huge profits are on the line, it is highly unlikely there is widespread compliance. It’s relatively small, private producers like Castillo de Canena that are bringing the purest oils to the specialty markets of the world.
NOW I know what REAL olive oil tastes like and why it’s like a fine wine…
…And you won’t find it in a grocery store
In discussing this problem with Francisco Vaño over lunch, he advised that olive oil must be compared to a fine wine, and paired with food in a similar way….and the price is most often going to reflect its quality. It’s simply impossible, given the high cost and precision of the hands-on production process of real, extra virgin olive oil…
…that a bottle of oil that you pay $10 or less for, is anything except the equivalent of a bottle of swamp water with who-knows-what in it. But a high price is not neccesarily a guarantee of quality either. So for pure extra-virgin olive oil, first, search out Castillo de Canena, (available at Qualifirst Foods in Canada) or Whole Foods in the USA and you will immediately taste and smell the difference. Their oils have won numerous awards, and in 2010 were included among the 20 best olive oils in the world by Marco Oreggia’s Flos Olei Guide.
Olives must be handled like a woman: very carefully…
The process of producing a top quality olive oil is complex and painstaking. To be classified as extra-virgin, the olives must be picked very carefully so as not to bruise the fruit, and cold-pressed immediately, which Castillo de Canena does within 3 hours of picking. This first pressing produces the most concentrated and nutritious form of the oil, known as extra-virgin. As Señor Vaño told us during the tasting before lunch, the enemies of this liquid gold are heat, light and air which causes free radical oxidation, so the temperature during processing is strictly controlled at or below 21°C (69.8°F) to preserve the quality of the fruit and its “juice” during “malaxation”, which is the action of slowly churning or “massaging” milled olives to extract the oil. It is then bottled in air tight stainless steel tanks until it’s time to be bottled in bottles which are opaque so as not to degrade the oil with light. The space left over after the bottles are filled is injected with an inert nitrogen gas to prevent the oil from being tainted with air.
The scent of freshly poured oil is incredibly rich and pungent and the Family Reserve Picual is described by the company as:
“In nose it presents fresh aromas of herbs, artichoke and fruit compote. In mouth it is soft and balanced, with banana, red apple, red tomato and balsamic herbs touches. Long persistence in the palate.”
After our tasting and magnificent lunch (paired with a selection of oils) that lasted for 3 hours, Señor Vaño gave us a tour of the private rooms of the 16 bedroom palace. Its comfortable elegance was striking and I can’t wait to show you the inside!!
But like a fine feast, I’ll let you digest what you’ve consumed so far and save the tour for next week!
For now, as we said with every glass raised in Spain, “Salud”!
Although we were hosted for lunch, this post was not sponsored, and the opinions are my own.