Saturday, March 10, 2012


Ann and Kenton haul olives to the mill.
This is the story of a fellow-American living in Spain. She and her husband have a farm with 850 olive trees. They pick the olives themselves, take them to the mill, and bring home the oil

Even before the press starts to squeeze, oil begins dripping from the tower of mats spread with crushed olives. When the hydraulic press begins to slowly compress, the flow increases. Oil begins to pool in a trough at the bottom. This is pure “olive juice,” squeezed from fresh “fruit,” olives.

Old-fashioned olive press.
Watching are Ann Larson and Kenton Smith, who picked the olives on their 22-acre farm in Yunquera, a white village in the highlands of southern Spain, and hauled them to the mill. Later they will truck the extra virgin oil back to their farm.

The olive juice as it is drawn off into a settling tank does not look appetizing.

“The first time I saw it,” says Kenton, “I was horrified: ‘What have they done to our wonderful olives?’  It looked like old machine oil.”

Oil in settling tank.
Allowed to settle in a convex tank, the oil rises to the top, leaving the dark water and sediment at the bottom. The oil is pumped out into big plastic jugs. Greenish-golden and still very cloudy, the unfiltered oil is ready for use without further treatment. Extra virgin. Fresh-squeezed olive juice.

“We let it rest for a couple months,”says Ann. “It settles more and turns almost clear.”

The traditional olive press in the small village of Yunquera is one of very few still operating in Spain. The process is simple. First the olives are tumbled and air-blowed in a hopper to remove leaves and dirt, then crushed by stones or steel wheels to release the oil. The pulp is spread onto mats woven of esparto grass or of polymer synthetics. These are stacked on a spindle on a hydraulic press, which squeezes the pulp tighter and tighter, allowing the oil to flow out through channels at the bottom.

There is another, modern mill in the village. Like most oil processing in Spain, it uses a far more efficient centrifugal system to extract the oil. After crushing, the olive pulp is spun at high speed to separate the oil from the water and solids.

“Once or twice a week I see tanker trucks with Italian license plates pull up at the gates,” says Kenton. (A lot of Spanish olive oil is exported to Italy, where it is blended and marketed as an Italian export.)

The traditional press, not very different from those used for milennia, is slow, labor-intensive and costly, but, said Ann, the locals think it produces the best oil.

Ann pours new oil for tasting.
Back in the kitchen, where Ann and Kenton enjoy cooking together, Ann pours some new oil into a saucer and cuts up a mollete, fresh-baked bread roll, for dipping. The oil is fresh and fruity, a little herbaceous. For comparison, she sets out some of last year’s oil. It is heavier, more full-bodied.

“This year we started picking early in December,” explains Ann. “Mainly to avoid the high winds that make picking nearly impossible. The locals usually wait as late as possible—February or March—because the yield is greater, but then the olives are over-ripe and the oil isn’t as fresh tasting.”

Ann, who is originally from Sioux Falls, SD, and Kenton, from Suffolk, England, left jobs in information technology eight years ago and moved to their mountaintop farm in Spain.

“We were at the top of an interesting profession, but we were always at the office or on a plane. We never saw our house in daylight. I had to ask, ‘do I want to do the same thing another 25 years?’ “

They traded in their upwardly mobile lifestyle for an abandoned farm on a mountainside facing the Sierra de las Nieves national forest. There they built a small house amongst olive and chestnut trees with astonishing views to the tumble of white-washed houses of the village, across hills all the way to the Mediterranean coast.

“We grow almost all our own vegetables, and cook with our own olive oil,” Ann tells me, “very much enjoying the more natural, outdoor life here, and the open way of living. Most of our friends in the village are farmers like ourselves. They’re finding it hard to make a living with dropping agricultural prices. In fact, many are just abandoning their land, because farming just doesn't pay.”

Estate-bottled olive oil.
Ann and Kenton sell oil under their own label, Yunquera Gold, bottled in recycled wine bottles, or, for shipping to the US, in silver-grey Pepsi Light bottles. Now, that’s estate-bottled oil. But the oil is a hobby, not a business.

 “It’s too expensive to bottle mechanically,” says Ann. ( for more about Ann and Kenton’s olive oil and life in Spain.)

A few years ago, Ann and Kenton started using their virgin oil to make artisanal soap for Christmas gifts. Stirred up in their small kitchen, the soap was scented with locally grown herbs and flowers.

“We were stunned at the difference between our soap made from olive oil and commercial soaps,” says Ann. Instead of just clean skin, we had clean, soft and moisturized skin. This is because commercial soaps have all kinds of additives in them and the manufacturers strip out the ‘good stuff’ (glycerin) for use in other beauty products.”

Silky olive oil cream has spicy scent.
Besides soap, Ann and Kenton developed blends of olive and other oils for body and face creams as well as hair care products. Easier to ship world-wide, the beauty products are proving quite successful. ( for more information.)

Ann has been collecting recipes from the locals, starting with Manuel, a neighbor, who has coached them through olive harvests and pruning. This is a traditional Yunquera dish—a “soup,” often cooked outdoors on a wood fire.  (The recipe for Sopa y Bollo is compiled by Ann Larson and used with permission.)

Sopa y bollo, cooked outdoors during olive harvesting. (Photo by Kenton Smith, used with permission.)

Yunquera Soup and Accompaniments
Sopa y bollo

Ann’s notes: The sopa is served first. When people have eaten almost enough, bollo is made from the remaining sopa. This is because the bollo contains expensive ingredients! My grandmother did the same by serving my farmer grandfather fried potatoes first, then the meat and veg afterwards.

Olive oil
5-6 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 large onions, sliced
4 long green peppers, sliced
1 large tomato
A few fava beans, cut into ½ inch pieces, but not shelled
A few asparagus stalks, torn into small pieces
1 head garlic, broken into cloves but not peeled
1 loaf day old bread, torn into small pieces

Heat olive oil, then add potatoes. Turn occasionally, so they don’t burn on the bottom, but don’t turn too much or they will break apart.

When softened, add the onions and garlic; cook a few minutes more, then add the green pepper and tomato, and other vegetables. Cook until potatoes are ‘al dente’.

Add water to cover the potatoes; after it boils, heat through a few minutes. Add the torn bread and cook until the liquid has been absorbed.

When people have nearly eaten their fill, prepare the bollo.


1 tin tuna, not drained
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
1 orange, peeled and chopped

Add the above ingredients to the remaining sopa, and stir.


  1. Your blog is one of my favorites. Reading it always motivates me to cook something special. Today I'm making a paella with chicken and duck with artichokes (even in Valencia you can still call this a paella). I may even make it in the street over a wood fire as we are in Fallas and that is permitted.

    I'm a city dweller but if I weren't I think that I would have to try growing olives and making my own oil. I am a complete snob about olives and I always have some great ones in the fridge. ¡Buen provecho!

    1. Leftbanker: So glad you enjoy the blog. Your paella sounds very valenciana, with chicken and duck. Do you use snails?

  2. Hi Janet,

    Enjoyed reading the site information.
    I am an avid olive oil user. We do a lot of Mediterrean food and living in our California desert home.

    I am interested in finding out where I might be able to purchase a couple of the Esparto grass old style olive press pads. I have looked all over the US and this point.

    Am willing to pay a fair price for them and for international shipping. If you could direct me to someone who might sell these items, I would appreciate it.

    Thank you

    Sandi O

    1. Sandi: Without searching, I don't know of someone who sells the esparto mats used in pressing olives. Query Ann (on her web site). She might have some ideas for you. What are you going to use them for?

    2. I had also emailed you about this. You can ignore that. Thanks for your response.
      Believe it or not...for home display. Our home d├ęcor is Italian/Mediterranean style and we wanted to follow through with those mats. We have several French and Italian corkscrews and other Mediterranean antiques in our kitchen and dining area.
      My parents were born in Italy, so our home is very much the "Old World."
      We grow some of our own vegetables( we live in the Mojave desert-no easy task)and use only first press olive oil. Very much into the European farm life...even in California. I will try to contact Ann. The website is not responding right I will try later.
      Thanks again for responding.

  3. Ann here: I'm sure Raphael would know of someone who sells these. Also, esparto weaving is still a pastime for many of the older guys in our village. (they weave intricate esparto coverings for wine carafes, etc).

    If you are seriously interested, Sandi, you could email me and I can put you in touch with a couple of people in the village.