Special Branch: Organic Picual and Arbequina Oils
Six years ago, Soledad Serrano-Lopez flew over from Spain to introduce herself and her extra virgin olive oil to Wellocks. We were gobsmacked at how good it was! From this point on, we formed a partnership and have never deviated from championing her oil. You could say that Special Branch was born out of this partnership as we talked about how could you improve upon perfection. Since our first meeting, Soledad and the team at Finca Duernas Olive Grove and Mill have put their heart and soul into doing just that, breaking the boundaries of extra virgin olive oil production.
So six years on, I set off to Cordoba in southern Spain to Finca Duernas to see how they’ve done it. I was met at the train station on a hot, sunny November day by Soledad, who took over as CEO of the family farm in 2010, her right-hand woman Sabrina and her brother Pepe, who is the farm manager.
The history of the estate here is tangible – over 200 years in the making – and this year we are going to experience the harvest and oil production at every stage. Immediately, we were on a road to discovery – or more correctly off road – as we were driven through an amazing grove of 150 year-old and even older olive trees to the summit of the farm. And wow, what a view! This vast 600-hectare site and its 100,000 trees rolled out in front of us. The old heritage trees, with their massive gnarly triple trunks, spread haphazardly over the hills, all planted before machine harvesting had been dreamed of. In contrast, the younger trees – just 40-50 years old with single trunks – march across the landscape in evenly spread militarily precise lines, making their care and harvesting super efficient.
Soledad explained how the family had transformed the farm with the aim of producing the very best extra virgin olive oil – having a good one was just not good enough for them! The first step in the process was to make the farm organic. That meant stopping using pesticides and undergoing a three-year detox before it could be considered organic. In most farms, the land between the olive trees is stark – almost concrete looking. But at Finca Duernas, there is grass which has to be regularly cut to stop it from taking nutrients away from the trees. To help control pests, there are special bottles in every tree with a hole in the top. The insects climb in but they can’t get back out – ingenious!
We had timed our visit to perfection as the olive harvest was in full swing with three teams working full on. Although normal for Finca Duernas, this is unusual for the area and on our journey to the farm we hadn’t seen anyone else harvesting. And this is one of the secrets of the success of its Envero oil.
The name Envero is important. It comes from the Latin ‘viride’ which means green, fresh and youthful – and this, in essence, is what the olives are when Finca Duernas chooses to pick them. The farm harvests when the olive is just changing from green to yellow to purple. Soledad explains that this is when the tree is saying ‘pick me now to get the maximum fresh anti-oxidants, nutrients, minerals and flavour’. What you do not get by picking at this stage however is the maximum yield. That’s why producers have historically waited for another month at least for the olive to go fully black – and past its best – to get the best yield. At Finca Duernas, out of one kilo of olives they get a maximum 9% of Envero olive oil and in some cases only 7%. The average yield for olive oil is 25% – so picking early is a massive call to make financially! However if you want the best tasting fruit juice…
Old traditions do not die here but are enhanced and the harvesting bears this out. Nets are precisely laid between the trees to catch the olives. Each tree has a protective webbing around the base of its trunk and the tractor comes in with a padded grabber and shakes the tree. The tractor’s efforts are supported by three men with long poles who smash the branches. You need to be careful at this point as the olives fly everywhere and, wow, the ground actually shakes! Very quickly, the team’s work is done and they move onto the next tree. Before you know it, the whole row is done and it feels like an earthquake has just happened.
Waiting in the wings are the next team – on quad bikes and on foot. The bikers shoot past pulling the net ropes to corral all of the olives into one net which is running in the opposite direction. The ends of this net are then hooked up to a winch to form a long funnel. This is wound in towards the trailer and onto another net which is then hauled into the trailer. Talk about slick! This is like a Formula 1 pitstop in action as the filled trailer then races to the mill with its precious cargo as though every second counts.
Why so fast? Because every second does count during this next stage of the process. As soon as the olive is harvested, it starts to oxidise and this is not good. In other farms and mills, the olives are generally collected and sent to a mill the following day where they wait their turn to be processed. In some case it can be several days before they are pressed.
At Finca Duernas, the time from harvest to mill is 10 minutes and now the investment in building the mill in the middle of this massive farm starts to make sense. They have ultimate control. Each load tipped has its quality assessed and logged by the experienced team. This team decides which hopper it goes to depending on the quality. Only the very best get to go into Envero – our Special Branch Arbequina oil – and Picual; others are used for the farm’s standard quality oil while those that don’t make the grade will be sent for bulk pressing.