An ancestral relationship
It is not known for certain when olive oil began to be produced in the Alentejo, but it is an ancestral tradition in the Mediterranean countries. It was the Phoenicians and mainly the Romans who introduced improvements to planting, grafting and olive oil extraction. Writings by the Roman historian, Strabo, refer to Alentejo Olive Oil as a product of excellent quality, imported by Rome 2000 years ago.
The use of olive oil as a food, means of lighting or a reference product for medicinal and hygiene practices is very old. Just like today, olive oil was one of the most commonly used fats, replacing cow’s milk butter, which was scarcely used in cooking. In the Alentejo, there is an ancient tradition for eating olives in bread, after being seasoned with salt and oregano. Olive oil was also used as a means of paying taxes and rent.
Currently, Portugal is the seventh largest olive oil producer in the world and the fourth biggest exporter. In 2016, international olive oil sales amounted to 434 million euros and Brazil, Angola, Spain and Italy were the main destination markets. Olive oil is the Portuguese product with the highest exports to Brazil.
It is in the Alentejo, a region in the south of Portugal, where more than 70% of domestic olive oil is produced. In the 2015/2016 marketing year, for example, the country produced 89.3 thousand tonnes of olive oil and 68 thousand was produced in the Alentejo. Over the last 15 years, the Alentejo region gained 50 thousand new hectares of olive groves, thereby contributing to a growth in the domestic olive oil production.
The varietals that provide flavour
Between the months of October and February, Alentejo Olive Oil is extracted from the olive (fruit of the olive tree) at its ideal stage of maturity to obtain fruity, mellow olive oils, solely by mechanical processes.
The region’s four main traditional varieties are Galega, Cordovil de Serpa, Verdeal Alentejana and Cobrançosa.
The Olive Grove where it all happens
In the Alentejo landscape the olive tree plays a prominent role. Three different olive grove management systems can be seen:
Traditional Olive Grove
This is the traditional system, used for many centuries and which still represents the majority of the olive grove area in Portugal. The trees are planted in wide rows - with 60 to 200 trees per hectare - and can be kept with or without irrigation. They may take between 15 and 20 years to come into production and there are productive olive groves that are more than a century old.
Intensive Olive Grove
Trees planted in narrow rows - 285 to 415 trees per hectare - cultivated with irrigation. It usually comes into production five to seven years after being set up and can produce for several decades.
Highly Intensive Olive Grove
Trees planted as a hedge, normally with a density of between 900 and 1200 trees per hectare. The operation uses irrigation and it comes into production two to three years after being set up. The oldest olive groves known where this system is used are about twenty years old.
Alentejo Olive Oil: A sensory experience
Unripe or ripe? Very pungent or only slightly? Alentejo Olive Oil is a unique product whose birthplace is in the largest productive region in Portugal.
Its main organoleptic characteristics are its fruity aroma, subtle or even absent bitter and pungent sensations with predominating apple, nuts, tomato, grass or leaf notes.
How to taste and savour it
The best way of becoming familiar with the flavours of Alentejo Olive Oil is by tasting it. At a technical tasting a dark blue glass is used, with a glass lid. The idea is not to see the colour of the olive oil so that it does not influence the taster’s perception.
Place around 15 ml of olive oil into the glass and immediately cover it with the glass lid, as a large proportion of the sensations that the olive oil transmits to us comes from its volatile compounds. By covering the glass, we prevent them from being lost.
The olive oil should be tasted at a temperature of 28º - the ideal temperature for maximising the sensations it has to offer. Heat the olive oil by holding the base of the glass with your hand.
Using gentle, circular movements, swill the olive oil in the glass so that it releases its volatile compounds.
Remove the glass lid and smell it slowly and gently. Inhale just two or three times, so as not to overload your sense of smell. Replace the lid.
Wait a few seconds and taste. Firstly, identify the faults - the most common being a rancid, fusty winey or musty taste. The first is caused by the olive oil oxidizing and the others come from fermentations. Then, the aromas, flavours and predominant notes.
Between different olive oils, clean the palate by drinking water and eating a small slice of apple.
The best time to do a tasting is at the end of the morning, which is the time when our senses are the most heightened. Avoid smoking or drinking coffee prior to the tasting. Also avoid the presence of strong smells or perfumes.
How to choose and store it
Virgin Olive Oil – a 100% natural product, obtained without using any chemical process – can be classified in two categories:
Olive oil is a dynamic product and cannot be kept in the bottle for very long. Light and heat are two factors which accelerate its oxidation, as well as air. So, once opened, it is recommended that the bottle of olive oil be kept in a dark, cool, dry place so that it can remain in optimal conditions for more than a year.