The chef came out of the kitchen again—solicitous, in crisp whites—and this time he placed before us a tiny, delicate bowl of cool white gazpacho. “Here,” he said, “the principal ingredient is an Arbequina olive oil. Fruitier than others, sweeter. Grown in Córdoba.”
Willy Moya peered at me with a dark, somber air; we were in Seville, at Moya’s own Restaurante Poncio, and he awaited my critical verdict. Not that I’m an oil-tasting expert of any kind, but I was starting out on a four-day swing through Andalusia in pursuit of olive-oil nirvana and wisdom. Like a lot of other Americans over the past few years, I’ve come to regard the golden green elixir with a certain romance—every bottle of olive oil tells a story about the weather and terrain of the place it was born. I had traveled to the source to get a taste of the landscape.
Andalusia is Spain’s premier olive-oil region, with endless rows of trees planted beneath the bright Mediterranean sun. Many mills here have recently shifted from selling low-grade oil in bulk to making quality artisanal olive oils. As Moya resumed his olive-oil primer, running through his menu, I felt as though I were venturing into a newly discovered land. “Red tuna,” he said, “prepared with the most popular and spicy oil in all of Andalusia—Hojiblanca. And now ibérico ham. And now red-pepper ice cream made with olive oil….”
I finally saw an olive tree the next morning. By then I was whirring west, off toward the province of Huelva with Roger Davies, a droll Welsh expat who runs a culinary tour company, A Question of Taste, from his home in Seville. The leaves in the groves fluttered green and greenish-silver beside us, and Davies spoke with a transplant’s zeal about the magic of olives. “Here in Andalusia,” he said, “there have been olives since the Phoenicians came 3,000 years ago.”
In time, we turned into a stone driveway outside Beas to meet Nicolás Gómez Marín, a small man in his sixties wearing a dashing tartan scarf. Marín typifies the new oil artisan: he’s a chemist, a Ph.D. in pharmacology, and his mill, San Nicolás y San Esteban, is tiny, producing just 30,000 bottles of oil each year. He gave us a walking tour of the groves. There was nary a weed, and in precise tones Marín explained that he picks his olives a month or so earlier than his competitors, in October, while they are still green and hard—unjuicy, but piquantly fresh. This makes for a lighter, sharper oil. When we came upon a workman, Marín’s voice went quiet. “This man here,” he murmured, “has won prizes for his pruning.”
José Lozano was unfazed by the tribute, and also garrulous. “There is only one way to prune a tree,” he bellowed, drawing on wisdom gleaned from his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father. “With logic!” The trees around him were nublike, more denuded of branches than any others I would see in Andalusia. “If you ask a tree to grow a million olives,” he said, “well, that’s like asking a father to feed ten sons. No one will eat!”
I kept expecting such gusto from Marín himself, but for him it seemed olive oil was a Platonic concept, a laboratory ideal. Marín juices his olives, as nearly everyone in Andalusia has since the 1980’s, by running them through a gleaming stainless-steel centrifuge. He studies his oil with a spectrograph, in hopes of attaining a secret, optimal wavelength. But when I asked him about flavor, he demurred—and instead speed-dialed one of Spain’s most esteemed oil savants, Madrid restaurateur Norberto Jorge, who orated by speakerphone. “Good olive oil,” Jorge pronounced, “is like campo verde, like cut grass, like fresh things—the smell of tomato leaves and artichokes. In the mouth, it must be silky, not chewy, not dense, and it must leave a bitter taste at the sides of the tongue and a little tingling at the back of your throat.”
Davies deemed Marín’s oil “maybe the best that I’ve ever tasted.” Still, I knew that all Andalusian olive oils are, like football teams in the Midwest, somebody’s favorite. So we drove on, toward Basilippo mill, near El Viso del Alcor, and met with owner Juan Morillo. We tasted his oils and toured his small museum, which displays a scale model of an ancient Spanish olive oil press, a prensa viga y quintal, which would lever a giant stone weight down on to the harvest. Outside, atop a tower, was an ancient bell, the sort that was used back in the 18th century to signal the start and finish of the field-workers’ day in the groves. The bell gleamed in the sun. We were just beginning our journey into the past.
El Vínculo mill, near the village of Zahara de la Sierra, has been in the same family since its inception in 1755, and its current owner, Juan Urruti, is one of the few Andalusian holdouts who still extract oil using the hydraulic cold-press method perfected in the mid 19th century. He squeezes juice from whole fresh olives by pressing them between heavy disks, some six feet across.