Portuguese gastronomy is becoming increasingly popular, standing out for its unique flavours, like the traditional sardines and bacalhau (salted cod), sweets such as the pastel de nata or Dom Rodrigo, and wines from the Douro and Alentejo regions (and, more recently, from the Algarve). There is no shortage of factors that make it unparalleled. But what gives our traditional dishes such distinct flavours?
In Portugal, we cook with wisdom and excellent ingredients, valuing traditions that are passed down from generation to generation and improving the quality of the food. One of the key ingredients that has been highly valued for centuries is olive oil, which is produced in various regions, and it is in the Algarve that we find some of the oldest olive trees in the country. The oil extracted from the olives has many health benefits and can be enjoyed raw, with bread, in salad dressings, or cooked in any meal.
Led by people’s curiosity in understanding what makes olive oil so special, “olive tourism” is on the rise, giving visitors the chance to follow the production process and taste different flavours. One of the companies focusing on this trend is the Monterosa estate, whose olive oil has already won the gold medal for 11 consecutive years at the most prestigious olive oil quality contest, the New York International Olive Oil Competition.
Their 15-hectare olive grove in Moncarapacho, Olhão, dotted with centenary trees, dates back to the year 2000, when it replaced an orange grove where there were already two mills. The company currently produces 15,000 litres per year through the cultivation of five varieties of olive trees “chosen according to their profile and the ideal time to harvest”, explained sales representative António Duarte, adding that this makes it possible to “work on each one individually, which gives us more time to take advantage of the ideal conditions”.
The estate produces six olive oil varieties: the fresh and fruity Maçanilha; the Verdeal, smoother and with an almond aroma; the Frantoio, spicy and bitter with fruity traces; the Selection Premium, spicy and fruity; the Picual, with a strong yet balanced flavour; the Cobrançosa, which is more bitter and spicy, with an herbal aroma; and the Horta do Félix, a blend of the brand’s varieties. They are produced in September and October with the help of 18 people. But what also makes Monterosa olive oil unique, aside from the flavours, is “the combination of climate, soil characteristics, production process and varieties”, revealed António Duarte.
The estate, which has been focusing on reducing its environmental footprint, aims to “produce a high-quality artisanal olive oil which blends traditional processes with modern technology, and which has minimal impact”. With this in mind, they are perfecting their process, with all the oil produced certified under an integrated production system, and gradually replacing plastic products with other materials.
Although its main activity is the production of ornamental and aromatic plants, aside from the olive oil, Viveiros Monterosa is now looking to expand its tourist activities. Already offering guided tours and picnics, the business will soon open a small rental accommodation unit.
Nearby is Quinta Au Monte, located in Tavira. In 2013, it was bought by Leo Urrestarazu and his wife Michelle, who have been living there with their four children ever since, raising pigs, chickens, geese and ducks. As the estate, which dates back to 1862, was previously used for olive oil production, it featured several ruins, amongst them an old mill built in 1888.
The couple decided to restore all the old buildings and revive the land’s signature olive trees, Maçanilha de Tavira, which have started to produce olives again, a process that was “great fun and exciting”, said Leo, revealing that this is “a dream come true”.
To top it all off, they planted four more varieties, namely Picual and Cobrançosa, used to produce their “Strong & Peppery” olive oil, and Maravilha and Picuda de Baena, used to produce the “Light & Fruity” olive oil – “two blends that appeal to different tastes and go well with different dishes”, explained Leo.
He believes that, so far, they have been producing “very good quality” extra virgin olive oil, something that is confirmed by the School of Agriculture in the University of Lisbon which analyses the olive oil that Leo sends every year.
Leo, who is of Swedish and Spanish descent, used to visit his grandfather who moved to Moncarapacho in 1958 and, although he had never worked in this industry before, he did not hesitate to start his business and take advantage of the farm’s 20 hectares. He enjoys tending to the olive trees himself and managing the hardships of production with the help of his family and just two employees, producing an oil that he considers “genuine, honest and transparent”, as it has no added substances and the process is “open to everyone”.
Here, the first few months of autumn are also the busiest on the farm, where anyone who wants to help harvest the 400 olive trees is welcome. The amount produced each year varies, and they expect to reach 4,000 litres this year. Their ambitions are to “produce more and better, without losing quality,” and for Quinta Au Monte to become fully sustainable, cutting out altogether plastic and waste, which is already low.
A trip to these olive oil estates is a fantastic opportunity to see how an olive press works, understand the production process and taste the various flavours of Portuguese gold.
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