A Visit to Oleícos del Cabriel

Piñon olives approaching ripeness

Many of us take olive oil for granted here in Valencia. We know  there are olive trees all around us, some of the ex-pats even have their own trees and know where the local co-op is to get the olives pressed. Very few know that Valencia has its own Controlling body with powers similar to the controlling bodies for wine, the CRDOP Aceite de la Communitat Valenciana. This body is responsible for controlling production, quality, varieties and promoting the sale of Valencia´s olive oil around the world. Around the world? You can buy 5 litres of oil for 20€ why would they sell it abroad?

The reason of course is that there is olive oil and then there is Olive oil Virgen Extra, the highest quality oil produced with similar standards set around the world for a top quality product. Olive oil produced in  the comunitat which is entitled to the protection by and support from the DO is made by just  nine  growers who are subject to exacting standards and analysis. Valencia grows many olive varieties which are not found anywhere else in the world and which are unique to Valencia. Just like vines those different varieties have their own characteristics distinguishing them from each other.

Looking at the list of producers I thought it was time to learn a bit more about oil, its production and taste and having been introduced to a grower in August I arranged to visit the firm of the Navarro Cañas family in Venta del Moro to do just that. Oleícos del Cabriel have their olive groves set  within the boundaries of the Hoces de Cabriel National Park, a stunningly beautiful area with pines set on wild hill tops interspersed with valleys containing almonds, olives and vines a classic combination taking advantage of differing soils and fertility. The Cabriel river and in this  particular area its gorge are used for both enotourism and adventure holidays making Venta del Moro a busy little town with its mix of Casas Rurales, bodegas and other agricultural processes.

I met Marta , one of the fifth generation of the family who own the property and who are set on both an expansion of the family firm but also dedicated to top quality products. Over a coffee in a local restaurant we chatted for an hour or so about Olive oil. Responsible for marketing Marta explained that the ecological process brought additional hurdles, difficulties and hoops to jump through in terms of buracracy and standards, not to mention an inability to treat pests with the usual chemicals. However apart from the satisfaction of producing the best olive oil in Valencia ( not her claim but the result of rigourous analysis and testing by technical experts ) it also means they have a quality product and as we all know quality sells well!

The family are immensely proud of their groves which benefit from being in the National Park and remote from the town itself in a number of ways. Not the least of these is working in such a stunning area but also the folds and valleys allow the trees to develop without stress and thus produce a better fruit. There are some 18,ooo olive trees on around 20 hectares some very old, others planted in intensive plots, something very unusual in the Valencian community and I was quite surprised when I saw them. It was not unlike standing in a plot of young Xmas trees. They grow a number of varieties including Cornicabra, Piñon, Manzanilla, Asperilla, Picudo, Piqual and Arbequina. The traditionally planted trees are in stands with gaps of 10m x10m or 12m x 12m The newer intensive plantations are 1.5m x 4m which gives about 16000 trees to the hectare.

One of the older trees

Marta told me that their olive groves were the only ones representing the Utiel-Requena comarca in the DO making them exclusive. In order to make the quality mark and be admitted to the DO it is necessary to reach certain standards amongst which is a low acid, measured by the loss of acid between picking the olives and the oil emerging. The standard for Extra Virgen is not more than 0.4 and they manage an impressive 0.18 only. In order to acheive this the olives must be moved in optimum conditions to the mill as quickly as possible. This is done by lorry in cases of 20kilos stacked not more than 1 metre high to avoid unwanted pressing and oxidisation. The intensively planted olives are harvested by machine, the same which  harvests their grapes of which more later. The older trees are harvested by hand traditionally.You might expect that the nearest olive oil press would do but whilst there are presses locally none has a line dedicated to the production of ecological oil which is essential because if their oil were to be contaminated by ordinary oil or oil suffering from defects they would have to write off the qualification completely. As a result the lorries take the crop to Altura, near Segorbe where there is a dedicated line for the pressing and milling of ecological oil and where the service is exemplary. This is acheived by driving the run within about an hour and a half. Here the olives are washed, given a single pressing  and milled,  then subjected to batonage before decanting. From this emerges an oil with solids and a very small percentage of water. The solids drop to the bottom and the oil is then subject to centrifugal pressing to extract the water. From here the oil is passed to conical tanks tapering towards the top to ensure that there is minimal oil in contact with air. Both sunlight and air cause detioration in oil as does contact with other elements. For this reason the whole process is carried out in scrupulously clean stainless steel including the trailors in which some of the olives are first collected because rust for example can cause detioration to the quality of the crop.

After this process and analysis the oil can be bottled ( actually it is marketed in stainless steel cans with modern labels ) as it is required for sale and distribution.

Amongst the intensively planted olive trees.

The older trees ( Cornicabra ) are planted nearer to the town and are secano, that is to say without irrigation. However the newer trees most of which have been in the ground for just three years  are irrigated. Trees that close together  compete for what water there is and in order to ensure even growth and minimal stress the trees are watered when necessary, usually around the flowering time and if there is a lack of natural water in the time before harvesting. Providing water in the middle of a natural park has its own additional problems as planning permission is obviously much more difficult, not to mention more expensive,  to obtain. In this respect the family have had to create a well, a water deposit and 4km of irrigation pipes, never mind finding the water in the first place. In this latter respect Marta´s father and brother ( both Luis ) are a secret weapon. Both are water diviners and can sense where there is a natural deep water deposit even if it is 200metres below ground. This has also proved helpul in other ways as when Venta del Moro´s own water supply to the fuente started to fail, Luis senior was summonsed by the town hall and duly saved the day by locating a new source! They have also helped other growers in the area locating wells for them. And of course the water deposit is also available for the helicopters that put out the forest fires when they occur. Nontheless the investment in these facilities cost many millions of pesetas. The plantation of the new trees was also expensive and time consuming being carried out by hand by Luis junior and their employee Basilio ,who has been employed with the family for seven years. For each a hole was dug and then each plant tied into a bamboo cane used for its flexibilty.  The total workforce is just these 4 people aided by other family friends when necessary. 

Picudo Piñon, a pest which eats the leaves of the trees.

The ecologically  farmed trees are subject to no chemical treatment and are only given natural manure from the flock of a local pastor grazing the surrounding countryside. They suffer from a pest called Escarabajo Picudo a bug which burrows down into the ground during the day and emerges at night to eat the leaves of the trees. The University are therefore engaged in a project to try to trap the bugs in a elasticated bandage at the base of the trunk before they reach the leaves. We looked at just 3 trees yesterday all of which had bugs trapped by this method but there was still evidence of the chewed edges of the leaves above. Looking at the trees the fruit had turned from green ( or was turning ) to  a yellower colour which indicates they are nearly ripe. They are harvested before they go black. Thus the harvest which was expected in November will be brought forward to later in October! Having said that it would be wrong to suggest the plantations were diseased. Quite the opposite the whole operation looked very healthy and reflects the care and dedication of the family to the whole process.

 Having seen the olive groves we turned to the Vineyards where Luis senior and Basilio were harvesting the garnacha with the help of the mechanical harvester. As we arrived the tractor was rolling toward us gently shaking the vines whilst the arms moved below sucking the bunches of healthy black grapes gently into hoppers, stripping them from the stalks but delivering them largely unspoilt and whole. From here the grapes are taken by trailer to the nearby Latorre bodega on the edge of the town. The transits were being carried out by Luis junior and an uncle and when we later passed the bodega two of their trailers were sat in a long queue waiting to discharge into the bodegas presses. The family own 40 hectares of vineyards some 95% of which are down to Bobal, the remainder being Garnacha. There are some 77,000 vines planted, some more than 30 years old and some only a year old. These latter vines will be in production in another two years time adding to the families production. However, like the almonds, the grapes produced are sent to the local bodega for onward sale in bulk. This is not the way the family want to continue.

The harvester moving up a row of vines

Luis stopped the tractor and dismounted. We chatted  for a while, tasted the concentrated sweet grapes and discussed the future aims of the family business, joined now by Marta´s brother  back from a trip to the bodega. The vineyards are also farmed ecologically. The family want to invest in a bodega of their own to make their own wines in the future. They are cosecheros presently, that is to say they produce grapes to be used by others after sale. Unlike many they want to become bodegueros making their own quality product and have seen first hand how those who could afford to do so and broke away from the cooperatives in the last ten years have done well producing the successful boutique wines making Utiel-Requena´s name. To this extent the olive oil is the key product driving the firm to provide money for later investment in the bodega and production of their own quality wine. Father Luis explained that this could only be done step by step. Also planned is a visitor centre so that groups can come to see the olive groves and vineyards but also for there to be somewhere for them to learn about the process and taste the products, currently impossible with the mill being so far away. In this respect plans are in hand which will complement the towns tourist role with one of the local Casa Rurales providing a base for visitors to learn and taste and in return pick up visits and boost their accomodation letting for visitors using the adventure based facilities of the river and the local walking. This is a fast growing enterprise with growing popularity amongst the Spanish and foreign visitors alike. Also likely to benefit are local restaurants making this a synergy with benefits for many.

Luis climbed back onto the harvester which is also used to help neighbours harvest their crops to maximise income from  the investment.   He invited me to join him and I clambered up with some trepidation to take some photographs and watch the harvesting. Despite the uneven terrain the ride was very smooth, the tractor riding over the vines, shaking them gently and sucking in the bunches. This was the first time I had ridden a harvester being rather more used to the manual variety. Nonetheless it contributed to what was turning into a special day!

Marta with her father and brother.

Garnacha grapes ready to go to the presses.

We left the Father and son and Basilio to carry on with the harvest 
and went for a ride around the rest of the property to see the olives 
and vineyards in situ and see Castilla la Mancha in the distance as
we did so. Then it was time for lunch in a local restaurant where we
 enjoyed local dishes from the region and the town, eg, Mortuerelo,
the local pate  and gazpacho ventamurreño (a stew), and lamb with
 fried potatos.
Bobal. healthy grapes from the local variety.

Following our discussions over lunch it was time to leave and mull over what I had learned. Certainly I am keen to learn more about olive oil and the process, styles and   flavours involved and accepted Martas offer of tuition….swapped with one to teach her about wine. Also I am looking forward to returning to see the olive harvest later in the month. For the record the two special olive oils produced are Aurora Real, Extra Virgen Olive Oil, Ecologico with just 0.18 degrees of acid and average fruit of 5.75. This is a mix of Cornicabra, Piñon and or Cuquillo and Vera. The second is Laderas  de Cabriel with 0.14 degrees of acid and average fruit of 3. This is Virgen olive oil and from Arbequina olives. It is smoother than the Aurora real but both are stunning with real flavour.

My thanks go to Marta and her family for an unforgettable day in wonderful countryside and a super lunch.
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