Spain boasts a well-oiled economy rooted in centuries-old, lovingly tended olive groves.

Rasheeda Bhagat

It’s as traditional an oil mill as you are likely to see in the Mediterranean region from a large producer of olive oil. Enter the sprawling Nunez de Prado family facility in the city of Baena in Cordoba region of Andalusia in southern Spain, and you immediately know this is no run-of-the-mill unit for producing olive oil. From the mill to the cellar to the dining room, it is like entering another era… a time that once was.

Earlier in the day the family patriarch, Francisco Nunez de Prado, has taken us — a group of nine international journalists — on a table olive and olive oil familiarisation tour of Spain organised by the International Olive Oil Council, and explained to us how his family has been engaged in olive cultivation for seven generations.

Their olive empire stretches across 700 hectares and the 94,000-odd olive trees are managed organically. A seven-generation tradition has ensured that the Nunez de Prado family does things only in a certain traditional way. For instance, the charming and antique oil mill to which we are taken was acquired by the family in 1795. But as it was located in a busy street, in 1989 the de Prado brothers shifted and refitted it at its present location. Against the quicker method of getting olives by striking the branches with sticks or using mechanical vibrators, the best varieties of picual olives produced by the family and meant for the table are carefully handpicked by labourers, some of them trained crews and many among them immigrants. Labour does not come cheap at around €60 a day.

The delicate operation involves the workers going around the groves with little baskets swung around their necks into which the handpicked olives are carefully placed. Fruits that fall on the ground will obviously not make it to the top grade and will be used for making olive oil. This abundant care and devotion involved in the picking process, not to mention the organic manure involved, makes a huge difference, as we can see later in the day, while partaking of a virtual gastronomic delight Francisco and his brother Philip have organised for us. The dining room is awesome… with its high ceiling, wooden rafters, wooden floor and bonsai olive trees lining the four sides of the room, adding a special touch to the entire experience. The theme is olive and comes out very strongly in the décor... the pictures and drawings on the wall.

But first the mill; “we love to blend the traditional with the modern”, explains Francisco as he shows us around the mill, which retains the massive conical millstones or grinders that were used in ancient times to crush the olives into a paste from which the oil is made after being run through compressed mats. An old-age mechanical contraption turns these stones without the use of human hands or mules (we later saw the equipment used a few centuries ago — a kind of plough operated by mules or donkeys to turn the huge conical grinders to crush the olives into pulp — at the olive oil museum in Toledo). Elsewhere we see factories with the latest and computerised high-speed centrifugal appliances turning tonnes and tonnes of olive fruit into pulp in a far, far shorter time, and obviously “more efficient” manner than the equipment used here.

But, obviously, the Nunez de Prado family is not interested in high volumes and is proud to see its exceptional quality produce going to speciality restaurants, food stores and even supermarkets around the world. It soon becomes obvious that more than quantity, volumes and profits, the watchwords here are quality and taste. Whether in the tasteful décor of the huge dining room — where the family name is displayed proudly on everything from the female chef’s apron to the little sugar packets used for coffee — or the ancient cellar complete with huge earthenware jars, what comes through is the passion to preserve an ancient tradition that must have been so dear to the entire family. While the oil producing equipment has been carefully preserved from the 18th and 19th centuries, the cellar dates back to 1795; the rest of the building was built in the mid-19th century.

The aura of the whole facility, which is so different from the spanking new, modern olive oil factories and packing facilities one has seen in Greece and many areas of Spain, literally takes you into another world.

Between lunches and dinners

The result is the exceptional quality of table olives and fresh, unfiltered olive oil that is produced here. Very soon it is time for the elaborate meal, planned in great detail by the family. As Bill Rice and his wife, the American couple in the group, remarked one day, “we seem to be going from lunch to dinner… spending something like seven hours a day on the two meals.” Well this might be an exaggeration but only a slight one… for there were sometimes meals which kept us engaged for more than three hours!

Anyway, the fresh and fruity fragrance that permeated the Nunez de Prado oil mill and the sight of the fresh, unfiltered olive oil that gushed out of the pipes into the containers had indeed sharpened our appetite. In a way one was prepared for a gourmet meal because earlier, while arriving at the factory, when one had asked for water, instead of small bottles that are usually passed around when you visit an olive factory or packing plant, the water arrived on a tray in beautiful long stemmed glasses that are used in restaurants for serving water and wines!

Our meal began with as many as nine appetisers… when the tray bearing jumbo prawns placed in a circular formation on the plate, with mayonnaise at the centre, appeared, Francisco said casually: “Oh, here comes the excuse we use to taste our mayonnaise!” Almond fritas, ham croquets, caviar and other appetisers followed in quick succession, not to forget scrumptious green olives, slightly crushed and marinated in vinegar and garlic. But what took the breath away were vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergine delicately fried in freshly-made olive oil.

Olive oil all the way

Of course, at every meal that we had in Spain, the central theme was olive oil; the height was at the gala dinner hosted for us on the last evening by the Ministry of Agriculture. The huge apples placed on the table were so red and so shiny that it led the IOC Executive Director Habib Essid to ask Ciriaco Vasquez Hombrados, Subdirector General from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, if they were real. “Oh yes,” he said, picking up a knife to cut them into slices that were passed around. The secret of their visual appeal — they had been brushed with a coat of olive oil!

But more than the tasty meal that we had at the de Prado facility, it was the ambience and the charming tales that Fransico related which made our day. Thankfully, unlike most Spaniards, he spoke very good English… and that was because he had originally trained to be a diplomat but ended up in the family business. His father was a politician “in days when politicians were very different”!

One such story he told us was about the ‘breakfast-miller’s lunch”, which he said was a Mediterranean precursor of the Anglo-Saxon brunch. He explained that in the olden days, the night shift used to end around midday, and the millers leaving for the day sat down to lunch in the main cellar with those coming in to work… they ate traditional bread freshly-baked in “our wood-burning oven. It was drizzled with (olive) oil and accompanied by garlic, tomatoes, salted cod, olives, some cold cuts and later — in the 19th century — oranges. All this was eaten with wine or coffee, and the millers would also bring some special treat from home.”

He added: “This is what we have tried to give you today; bon appetite!”

Surely, he must have been joking… the fine wines and the hams, the fish and other fare that followed over extended main courses and desserts, can by no means form the integral part of a working person’s lunch… anywhere in the world.

Versatile and valued

After witnessing the trauma and desperation among Indian farmers thanks to reduction of subsidies, exploitation by middlemen, moneylenders and market forces and the increasing disenchantment with the farm sector in India, it comes as a bit of a cultural shock to find Spanish agriculturists being such a proud, happy and prosperous lot. Of course, government support and EU subsidies help!

After tourism, agriculture is the second-biggest income grosser in Spain, the world’s topmost producer of olive oil. Those engaged in olive cultivation — particularly in the Andalusia region in the sunny south — talk about the olive tree, its fruit and oil with pride and passion. Along with olives, varieties of exotic vegetables are grown, so that they can be cooked, garnished, or simply doused in olive oil to form gourmet fare offered at steep prices in high-end restaurants.

In the olive-intensive provinces of Jaen and Cordoba in Andalusia, a mega-exhibition of olives, titled Land of Olive Groves, will be held between December 2007 and April 2008 as an international event that will deal with the past, present and future of olive groves and will showcase the planning and cultivation of olive groves, the production of fine varieties of table olives and olive oil. It will detail the ongoing efforts to modernise production and packaging facilities to cater to the ever-growing demand for olive oil across the world, as people wake up to its nutritional and health benefits.

That the extremely costly olive oil has long been used in India for massaging babies and even adults and sometimes as hair oil, is fairly well-known in the Spanish olive circle. An agriculture ministry official told me how he had once read in an Indian publication that “olive oil can also be used for cooking”!

Some of the areas the exhibition will focus on the use of olive oil are:

Food and gastronomy — distinctive fruity aroma, taste, colour and texture makes it an essential ingredient in salads, meats, vegetables and fish.

Health — it lowers cholesterol, reduces risk of heart attack, stimulates secretion of bile, lessens gastric acid and helps to improve metabolic function. Also stimulates bone growth, helps calcium and mineral absorption and contributes to a healthier ageing.

Nutritional aspects — Extra-virgin olive oil contains Vitamin E and is particularly recommended for children and the elderly for its antioxidant qualities on the cell membrane. Despite being a fat, those who consume it regularly are comparatively healthier. It also has extra Vitamin A and is good for sight.

Cosmetics — For thousands of years it has been used to smoothen the skin and for massage, as it relaxes the muscles and nerves. Egyptians used it as a cosmetic nearly 5,000 years ago, and for maintaining mummies. Today, a wide range of gels, shampoos, soaps, cosmetic oils and perfumes contain olive oil. It strengthens and nourishes the hair, making it shinier and less susceptible to hair loss. Can be used for scalp problems such as dandruff, eczemas and minor allergies.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 23, 2007)
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