Point to Jaén on the map. If you’re like most people, chances are you don’t even know where to begin.
This Andalusian region sandwiched between Cordoba and Murcia is largely overlooked by tourists and deemed a kind of “middle of nowhere” by many—yet it is considered the world capital of olive oil. This region, crosshatched by olive groves and dotted by villages that seem fossilized in time, produces about 40% of Spain’s total olive oil. And with Spain being the world’s largest olive oil producer, this means the province is responsible for roughly 20% of the world’s production.
Carpeted with 66 million olive trees and home to the world’s largest olive oil mill, Jaén lives and breathes olive oil. Olive oil tourism, a fairly new initiative promoted by the regional government, has spurred a trickle of culinary-minded travelers to the area. The offerings are vast, from culinary to cultural (there are several museums devoted to the olive) to wellness, with some spas offering olive oil treatments. There’s an annual contest for the best olive oil and an annual expo attracting industry insiders. There are olive routes through the region weaving past countless groves and charming villages. And this wouldn’t be Spain if there weren’t a festival celebrating the product.
The annual olive harvest takes place in late fall and early winter, between November and February. Almost everyone takes part and unemployment is nonexistent.
In fields buzzing with activity, olives are shaken off trees by machines clasped to their trunks, falling into nets that line the ground. The harvest is then transported to the mill, where the oil-making process begins after leaves, twigs, and other bits are removed and the olives are washed. A grinder crushes the fruit, pits and all, into a paste, which is then churned, or malaxed, to form small oil droplets. After this comes the pressing part, which is done by centrifugation: high speed spinning separates the oil from the paste. The oil is then left to sit in tanks where gravity works its magic and separates any other solids and water that remain. This part of the process is called racking.
In some cases, the process is finished with filtration, which is not necessary but a matter of personal preference. Filtering gets rid of any other sediments and small amounts of water that were not separated during racking. This is done in various ways, including using mesh filters or diatomaceous earth. Filtration raises debate, however, as some say it has benefits like prolonging shelf life, while others say that it decreases polyphenol content.
Most olives grown in Jaén are of the picual variety, which produces a fruity, full-bodied oil with a peppery taste. It’s one of the healthiest olive oils due to high levels of polyphenols and fatty acid content. It withstands oxidation well and is great for a variety of uses, including cooking at high temperatures, marinating, and drizzling over fresh veggies and salads.
So what should you look for when shopping for olive oil?
The most important differentiating factor is the classification: you should always look for extra-virgin olive oil. This is the highest grade of oil, cold-pressed and unrefined. Olive oils that use heat during the extraction process increase oxidation and reduce nutrients, polyphenols, antioxidants, and vitamins.
And opt for a Spanish oil! We’re not just being biased; Spanish olive oils continuously win awards and it’s no surprise that our country’s liquid gold dominated this year’s World’s Best Olive Oils ranking, nabbing the top slot. Check out some of our favorite picks in our online shop. And if you’re in Seville, you might want to join us on an Olives Under the Sun tour in which we head to the countryside to visit an olive farm, tour the groves, and taste the liquid gold right at the source. There’s nothing quite like it!