Saturday, February 13, 2010


The Spanish word for oil—aceite—derives from the Arabic phrase that means “juice of the olive.” (Interestingly, the Spanish word for the olive tree—olivo—comes from the Romans who preceded the Arabs in Spain.) I’ve just come home from the olive mill with a five-litre jug of olive juice—extra virgin olive oil—payment in kind for the olives I picked.

It’s been an unusually rainy winter (¡gracias a Diós!), which meant I didn’t spend so much time outside picking. A lot of this year’s crop dropped and was lost. Working alone, I only collected two big gunny-sacks. I carted them off to a mill in a nearby town and saw them dumped into a bin on the scales.  All those hours of picking resulted in just 59.5 kilos (131 pounds).   But I was delighted to carry home my jug of olive oil.

I decant the oil into glass bottles and store them in a cool, dark cupboard. Light, which causes oxidation, is the worst enemy of oil. I keep a small bottle near the stove, always at hand for cooking, and refill it frequently.

The new oil is somewhat cloudy, though it will probably settle and clarify with time. I set out a saucer of oil and chunks of bread for dipping. The oil has a pungent fruity aroma. It tastes fresh with a hint of bitterness and almost none of that raspy sensation in the back of the throat. The oil is a “coupage” of pressing from several varieties of olives from many different olive groves in the area.

Next, I make a heap of patatas fritas—“french” fries made in olive oil. Which, of course, are Spanish fries. They are delicious. Whatever you thought you knew about not frying in olive oil is probably wrong. Olive oil is fantastic for frying. Foods actually absorb less olive oil than if fried in other vegetable oils. (Only very delicate oils such as the Arbequina varietal are not suitable for frying.)

Now salad—lettuce, baby spinach and scallions from the garden (yes, in February) and green beans from the freezer—dressed with a little Dijon mustard, olive oil, a very little wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Perfect.

In my kitchen, olive oil is the only fat. No butter, no other vegetable oils. I use olive oil for Chinese stir-fry. I drizzle it on pop corn. Mashed potatoes get their flavor from olive oil. I “butter” toast with it. I even use it in pie crust and carrot cake.  Olive oil, as we all know, is more healthful than most other fats. It’s also the most important ingredient in Spanish cooking.

How olive oil tastes depends on the variety of olive, the soil, climate, ripeness of the olives, but, most importantly, how the olives are picked, transported, stored and milled. If you ever wondered just how a virgin can be “extra,” it has to do with how much “manhandling” the olives had. Careful picking, transporting, storage and milling produce the finest extra virgin oil.

Spain produces more olive oil than any other country in the world—between 35 and 47 percent, depending on annual fluctuations. There are 309 million olive trees extending over 5 million acres of Spain’s landscape (only 18 of them are on my property). The province of Jaén alone produces more olive oil than all of Greece. A lot of Spanish olive oil is exported to Italy, where it is bottled for marketing in the U.S.

You’ll find more about olive oil—including recipes—at this web site:  And, for sure, more from me on this blog.

Here's a recipe for alioli--garlic mayonnaise made with olive oil. It makes a great party dip--three versions, with quince, with piquillo peppers and plain. 

Olive Oil Mayonnaise with Garlic

This version of traditional alioli is made in a blender, using a whole egg in place of egg yolk. (If raw egg could be a health risk, substitute pasteurized egg.) Use it as a sandwich spread or salad dressing; serve alongside grilled fish, rabbit or lamb chops; as a dip with vegetables or chips; dolloped into soups, or as an accompaniment to Spanish rice dishes. Use your best extra virgin olive oil, because flavor is what it’s all about.

Makes about 1 cup.

1 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or 2 tablespoons vinegar

Put the garlic and egg in a blender and pulse until garlic is finely chopped. With the motor running, pour in the oil in a slow trickle, allowing it to be absorbed by the egg before adding more. Blend in all the oil. The sauce will emulsify and thicken. Blend in the salt and lemon juice.

The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 days.

Variations: Saffron mayonnaise: crush a pinch of saffron threads. Add 2 tablespoons of hot water and allow to steep 10 minutes. Stir the saffron water into the mayonnaise. Honey mayonnaise: Dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in 2 tablespoons hot water. Stir into the mayonnaise. Quince mayonnaise: stir 1 ½ oz quince paste with 2 tablespoons boiling water until softened. Blend into mayonnaise. Red pepper mayonnaise: purée tinned red pimiento and stir it into the mayonnaise. Caper mayonnaise: add 3 tablespoons drained capers to the mayonnaise.

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