[ Eat: ] Profile – Oleum Priorat Olive Oil

Close your eyes and imagine. Imagine a place where nature’s gifts, like apricot trees, wild rosemary, olive groves and gnarly old ancient vineyards grow wild, intermixed amongst rugged steep mountainous terrain and scrub brush surviving courageously in this harsh climate.

Imagine a history, dating back centuries, and being able to witness and experience terraces built by hand during the Roman era; carved from ancient mountains on slopes so steep and at such high elevation that most of us would be to afraid to walk upon them – let alone work.

Imagine a place where thousands of years later a remarkable group of passionate artisans dedicated their lives to cultivating delicious wine and food – and in so doing have allowed the world to experience what history tastes like.

The idea of a place so natural and rugged and rustic – yet refined – so history-steeped and so delicious in its very nature sounds like a fantasy to those who love amazing food and wine; a sort of utopian destination we all might get a chance to visit when our time on this planet has passed.

The truth, however, is that this utopian destination exists – a mere 2-hour drive due-west of Barcelona in a quiet history-steeped region of Spain called Priorat.

Each time I’ve had the privilege of visiting Priorat, I can’t help but be overtaken by the dramatic mountains and natural scenery, as well as the incredible wines and the inspired restaurants and food. For me, each visit to this region of Spain starts with a stop to see our life-long friends and business associates at Clos Figueras (one of the preeminent wineries in this region) located in the village of Gratallops.

After visiting at Clos Figueras, I always embark on one of the great “foodie” indulgences I’ve experienced anywhere – an uninhibited shopping spree at the local farm co-op, which showcases and awesome array of preserved fruits, vegetables, spices, Spanish rice, oils, vinegars and more.

While I have always been aware of the fine olive oils produced here in Priorat, I was elated to learn that my friends Peter & Chris Neal (purveyors of some seriously tasty things) back here in Canada had discovered an extra virgin olive oil from Priorat to be launched through their food distribution business. Combine my own keen awareness of the magic of Priorat with the impressions of taste-makers like the Neal Brothers, and I knew the result would be something worth tasting.

As I began my research for this article, I came to recognize the many similarities existing between fine olive oils and fine wines. There is no doubt that Priorat is one of the great “terroirs” for olive oil you’ll find anywhere on earth. Much like grapevines, olive trees produce more complex, fragrant and intense fruit when they are forced to struggle. The climate, geology and terrain here in Priorat couldn`t be more perfect for creating that kind of an environment.

Oleum Extra Virgin Priorat Olive Oil carries the D.O.P. Siurana and is produced from 100% Arbequina olives. The Mediterranean climate here in Priorat conspires with the local soil, called Llicorella (a sort of finely fragmented slate, or schist) to create something of a perfect set of circumstances for the production of quality oils. Llicorella does not resemble soil in the sense most of us envision a fluffy soft loam, hard compact clay or lose granular sand.

Rather, Llicorella is composed of shavings or small thin sheets of broken down sedimentary rock that can reach a couple of feet of depth sitting on top of the underlying bedrock. Llicorella does not “hold” water particularly efficiently, as it tends to drain through this mass of Llicorella “pebbles” rather easily. While this unique soil profile can present its share of challenges, there is no doubt that it encourages superior quality and yields a distinctive product that cannot be replicated.

Production methods employed here at Oleum clearly put quality of their oils well ahead of ease, low cost or simplicity of production. Throughout the growing season hand-thinning – berry by berry – sees the removal of less ripe olives from branches containing other riper fruit, in order to concentrate flavour and aid in ripening of the remaining olives. This process reduces the final yield, but has a measurable impact on improving quality of the final oil.

Harvest at Oleum is carried out by hand, which (as one can imagine) is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Strict measures are employed to treat the harvested fruit as carefully as possible since oil quality is improved by avoiding the inclusion of bruised, scratched, under ripe or otherwise damaged berries. Pressing is carried out within 12 hours of harvest, which again, works to preserve the freshness and delicate fragrance of a fine oil.

Finally, all of the oils here at Oleum are cold-pressed. Hot-pressing (heating of the pits before running through the press and extracting oil) increases the volume and ease of extraction, but in so doing, you tend to lose some of the more delicate and fragrant flavours and aromas of the oil. There is also evidence which suggests that applying heat before pressing destroys naturally occurring compounds which make cold-pressed oils healthy additions to your diet.

So, what about the final product? Oleum Priorat Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a delicious and fine finishing oil. I would recommend using this to top salads or drizzle or over meat, fish and seafood dishes (once plated) immediately before serving. It delivers an incredible fruity and almost floral fragrance which tastes incredible, but also brings an amazing aroma to your plate when you drizzle it over warm food just before serving.

Finishing oils such as these envelop your palate with flavours of dried fruits, almonds and briny ocean-inspired savoury “olive-esque” flavours. In addition to using this as a finishing oil, you will find oils such as these increasingly used as the star of the dish – from oil poached halibut or salmon, right through to dessert, where fine oils take centre stage in ice creams, cakes – or even as a flavouring agent in an icing.

So what are you waiting for? Go pick up a bottle of this delicious oil – and give it a try with one of these three amazing recipe ideas that will bring out the best in this magical bottle of concentrated Spanish flavours, coaxed ever-so-carefully from the stunning mountainside olive groves of Priorat, Spain.

RECIPES:

Stunning Caprese Style Bruschetta
Olive Oil Poached Halibut with Fennel & Saffron

Olive Oil Ice Cream