Spain's Sexy, Stylish Olive Oil

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Royal Olive Oil from Spain. Just to be clear in the copy since there's no way you'd know from just reading it, "Royal" here should be said in Spanish, not in English. As in, "Roy-al" with the "Al" like it would be someone's name. And it refers not any kind of imperial court, but rather to a very old olive varietal from Southern Spain. That said, now that I think about it, the oil is so good it would well warrant getting a Royal Seal of some sort so you could just use the word here as something of a edible double entendre.

Anyways, aside from all those fairly irrelevant etymological exercises, I think I first tasted this oil from the Vaño family at the Alimentaria show in Barcelona a few years back. Their Castillo de Canena Picual oil, which we've been carrying for a few years now, was really already one of my favorites. To my taste one of a handful of Picual oils that I think (not everyone will agree, I know) avoid some of the less than desirable (again, my opinion, not everyone's) flavors that can come from that varietal. To me their Picual oil is very tasty, big, pretty bold flavor, long lasting very clean and pleasant finish. The Royal oil is right there with it--very different set of flavors but all the good work that goes into the agronomy, the picking and the pressing are making for a second, different but equally excellent oil.

Our dry goods manager says it's a very sexy oil, and I think she's right.

The Vano's farm and press in the town of Canena, in the district of Jaen, in Southern Spain. The land is in the Guadalquiver Valley, running along the Guadiana Menor River so the trees are drawing water naturally in that way. Written documentation of the family's ownership of the land dates to 1780 (what Russian village my ancestors were working in back then I have no idea. I know they didn't own any land.). The castle itself was built in the first half of the 16th century, designed by Francisco de los Cobos, who was the secretary of emperor Charles V.

When I first met Francesco and Rosa Vano they mentioned that they were working on this oil--they hadn't yet sold any, but they were starting to give tastes to good customers to let them know it was coming. The Royal's history is even older than the Vano link to their land--Rosa told me it predates the Picual in the Jaen area. It's little known outside the area and it seems that hardly anyone grows it any more.

To my (limited, of course) knowledge no one other the Castillo de Canena is bottling it as a straight varietal. Like so many of the old olive types, the yields on the Royal are low--it's harder to grow and harder to harvest, so, not shockingly, there are fewer and fewer of the trees left. The Vanos found some up in the mountains and replanted them on their land at Canena a number of years ago. Today they have about 45 acres of Royal planted. (For context, there are about 6,000,000 total acres of olives planted in the country.)

There are about 3,600 Royal trees on that acreage, which combined to produce about 4000 bottles of oil total last year. The olives are handpicked early in the season so that the flavors and polyphenols are high. Last year's harvest took place on Nov 19th and 20th. The Vanos manage the whole process on the farm--growing, harvesting, and pressing is all done on site and they use only their own olives. The olives are pressed within three hours of picking. They're very into sustainable growing (they use IPM methods) and have done a lot of work with solar power on the farm--not a bad idea in the very hot and very sunny Andalucia.

Having tasted and re-tasted the Royal oil about 15 times in the last few weeks, I can say with high confidence that I really like it. It's already won a few awards for whatever that's worth. It's got that rare combination of both buttery and peppery that I really love. Our dry goods manager says it's a very sexy oil, and I think she's right. I've been using it a lot--the fact that I keep going back to it when I could be using any of the other ten oils I've got at my house on all the good tomatoes from the market is probably telling. And putting it on toasted Paesano bread. And on salads.

It would be very good on what I think is a really great September bruschetta--grilled or toasted Bakehouse bread, plenty of oil, and then really ripe fresh peaches, pears, apples, or plums. The combination might sound odd if you haven't had it, but it really is a great way to end a meal without eating any processed sugar. If you want to skip the bread (I wouldn't) the oil would be good right on the fruit as well.

PS: I should mention that the Canena Royal oil comes in a really great bottle. It really doesn't look like any other offering I've seen so I'm not sure where the Vanos got it. "Original black bottle with white xerography," is how they describe it. Cylindrically shaped black glass with a lot of right angles in its "shoulders," it reminds me a bit of those padded shoulder '60s suits the stylin' sales guy in Mad Men. None of which, of course, makes the oil taste any better but does make it nice to look at on the counter, and also a really good gift.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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