Once again everyone was on their own to go to the breakfast buffet at their leisure, and we were ready by 9:20 to board the bus just down the cobblestone street (where we were let off previously). Susan passed out individually wrapped See’s Candies before our driver Alberto took us out of the big city, stopping frequently for traffic lights, but in little traffic as it was Día de la Hispanidad or National Day (Fiesta Nacional de España), the annual national public holiday in Spain commemorating when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas in 1492.
We made it into the countryside of rolling hills covered mainly with plowed earth and golden stubble (probably winter wheat, not yet planted) or olive groves of various ages from newly planted to very old. We drove over the hills under mostly clear skies with some light, high clouds around in the distance. Through the little town of Santa Cruz with it large olive oil processing plant; across more rolling hills of bare fields and vast plantings of olive trees; past a group of cyclists our for a long ride; the silhouette of a fortified castle in the haze on the hill ahead. Through the hill town of Espejo with its mix of modern and historic buildings, and back to more high rolling hills covered with olive groves. We twisted and turned over and down the hills on the N-432, past the large town of Castro del Rio with its whitewashed buildings covering several hills, and on to more olives. Past an olive nursery, with lots of young propagated plants in containers under shade cloth; a few more cyclists; more and more grey-green olive trees; a goat farm with the black and brown animals lounging in a dirty corral surrounded by a low stone wall. About 10:15 we turned off onto the A3130 toward Baena, following the twisting, winding road through more olives to get to that whitewashed town on the hillside where we stopped at the bus station there to pick up Jonathan Lord, the British owner of All Ways Spain (the in-country operator of the tour). Alberto pulled off on the side of the road to let us out so people could use the toilets in the smoky train station, since there were none in the olive grove, another 20 minutes down the road. The town of Baena, with a population of 30,000 is almost completely devoted to the olive oil industry, and is one of the leading DOs (denominations of origin, a special designation of quality). Jonathan gave an introduction to the history of olives and oil production in Southern Spain as we drove, going back to the Phoenicians and Greeks, Iberians and up to the Islamic and Christian eras. Although Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, Italy is thought of as the main European source, but that is partly a marketing issue, partly due to reputation of olive oil being a peasant food since the good quality oil was all exported in Franco’s time, leaving the Spaniards with the crummy stuff, leading to the decline of olive groves for a while (although that has changed in the last few decades) and partly a result of a surplus of Spanish oil that was exported to Italy to be used there, but also rebottled for export (legally called Italian because of EU rules), plus the higher number of Italian immigrants in the US. Then we got a quick recitation of the various grades of oil from extra virgin to pomace, and some of the similar and different designations in the US.
We turned off onto the CO-6209 toward Zuheros, winding up the hill in the Sierra Subbética mountains to that hilltop whitewashed village of about 800 people with its restored medieval castle. We stopped to pick up Coco Zafra and then headed to her private olive estate Las Quebradillas (her husband Antonio was away on business, otherwise would have joined us) stopping on the side of the road a few minutes later. We hopped out and followed her into the olive groves to learn about olive production. There are over 250 cultivars of olives grown in Spain, with only 30 grown commercially, and a dozen on this particular property in a preserved natural area that has heritage trees mixed into the native vegetation of holm oak and shrubs. Down below us we could see the vast commercial production, with monocultures of trees in straight line in a patchwork across the rolling hills, while above us the slope was a darker green with the native vegetation interspersed with the olives. This traditional organic farming style that they chose to follow on their 2 hectares with 300 trees helps preserve the natural diversity of the flora and fauna of the region which has been inhabited by humans for a long time – there are remains of ancient Iberian culture from about 800 BC on the mountain here.
We moved from the road up the slope to stand by one of the wild olive trees, acebuche, which normally has more, smaller fruit than the cultivated varieties, but because of the drought wasn’t much different this year. The leaves of this tree are thinner and the fruit has less pulp than cultivated types. As Coco spoke in Spanish and Jonathan translated into English, the dark cloud that had been looming in the distance grew near to spit sprinkles of rain on us. Soon the wind picked up, but the little shower blew through quickly without much impact, leaving us comfortably cool under the clouds. We learned about the annual cycle of production (flowering in May, harvest in November) and harvest techniques. Traditional-grown trees are hand-harvest by stripping the fruit from the branches or are tapped with a stick to make the fruit drop onto a tarp spread on the ground below. Commercial plantings are harvested mechanically, with different types of equipment that can shake the tree with a rubber belt placed around the truck so the vibrations cause fruit drop onto something spread out on the ground; others have an upside-down umbrella-like structure that goes around the trunk to capture the fruit that is shaken off; and hedge-grown olives are stripped from the branches with a specially-designed combine. There has been a shift over the years to earlier picking to get more flavorful oil rather than waiting until the fruit is more mature with a higher oil content but less aroma. This hillside is normally green and full of vegetation, which is managed by the neighboring farm’s sheep (goats aren’t used as they will browse the trees), but this year was dry and nearly bare after almost no rain. They do have olive fruit fly here, using pheromone traps to manage it in organic production and insecticides in commercial plantings.
It began to warm up as the clouds broke up as Coco told us about different types of olives. Although trees up to 500 years old are known in Andalusia, most are only grown for about 70 years when fruit production really starts to decline. Most conventional plantations start producing after about 5 years, peak at 15-30 years, with decent production up to 50 years, but many are replaced after 25-40 years – often with the same variety. Some of the most common varieties grown in this region are ‘Picual’, ‘Picudo’, and ‘Hojiblancha’. Some of the older types they have include ‘Chorruo’ with lots of small fruits in bunches; ‘Entero’ has almond shaped-fruits; ‘Picudo’ has pointed fruit, named for the resemblance to the beak of a bird, and wider leaves; ‘Torico’ has bigger, rounder fruits. Coco pointed out ‘Nevao Basto’, a local native variety they registered. Many of the fruits were shriveled because of drought, and it has been estimated that 70% of the crop has been lost because of the lack of rain. They use a mixture of all of these in the oil that they produce for sale, both because they don’t have enough of any one variety, but also because the combination has a better flavor. Harvesting in the artisanal plantings is done by locals, but in the commercial plantings, and especially around Jaen, it is primarily immigrant labor, especially by North Africans. Even if the olives can’t be used, they have to be removed from the trees anyway, so there will be a “harvest” of sorts, even though it will not result in much oil. Extra virgin and virgin oil is produced by mechanical crushing of the fresh fruits, followed by centrifugal extraction of the oil to separate that from the other liquids and solids. Those two designations are determined by both acetic acid content and subjective quality rating. Lower quality oils come from the second pressings, where the solids remaining are treated with heat or chemicals to extract any remaining oil.
By now the clouds had mostly moved on, leaving us in very warm sunshine as we moved higher up the stony slope to see different trees, and then learned about processing to use the fruits as table olives. The fresh green fruits are treated with lye, then soaked in brine, changing the liquid twice a day for about 2 weeks, adding herbs, stuffings or other flavorings if desired. Cured black olives are not more mature, but are also picked green and chemically treated to speed up the oxidation that causes the color change. We also found out that they used to hoe the ground, but that has been prohibited to prevent erosion.
Most of us headed up the steep, stony slope to get a better view of some of the native vegetation that if not removed would eventually engulf the olives. The whole mountain area was declared a natural park, with hiking trails and access road, but also private property with olive holdings, so people can’t go just anywhere. We could see a large old farm house off in the distance which has been converted to a luxury hotel. It was sprinkling lightly again when we returned to the bus at 12:45.
From there we returned the few minutes to the village of Zuheros, driving as far as possible on the bus, then walking the narrow lanes from there to the house of her neighbor (and Antonio’s cousin) Charo who was hosting us for lunch in her home. After walking around the small pool and tiled patio, and up the steps to view the gorge behind the house, a little bit of the fortress towers above, and some of the whitewashed houses of the village, we returned inside. We were seated at a long table in the sunroom, opening the big windows to let in a little breeze, and had a little olive oil tasting before lunch. We first had a nearly clear, scentless sunflower oil in a tiny plastic cup to dip tongue tips into, then compared that with a small amount of golden olive oil from last year’s crop. We were instructed to hold the container in one palm, cover it with the other and swirl the oil for a bit before lifting it to the nose to smell the floral aroma arising from it, and then tasting a small amount to detect the different flavors it contained. Unfortunately because of the drought there weren’t any varietals to compare like would normally be done with an olive oil tasting. But this little bit clearly showed the different composition of the oils. Then it was time to sample some dishes chosen to highlight the use of olive oil.
Lunch began with several starters laid out on the table including rustic bread topped with goat cheese and a cherry tomato half or pork loin preserved in oil on top of a green pepper sautéed in oil; whole green olives (not theirs but local ones); potato chips; and bocarones, little prepared anchovy halves draped over a whole olive and drizzled with oil. We were offered beer (Steinburg from France) or a local Verdejo white wine, then were each given a small serving of salmorejo, the thick, regional version of gazpacho (made with much less garlic than the version we’d had before, and therefore much better without so much bite) garnished with tiny cubes of serrano ham and pieces of hardboiled egg. That was followed by a winter salad typical of mountain regions called remojón, of orange pieces and salt cod with pomegranate, all drizzled with a generous amount of olive oil which Coco dished up onto plates for us. Charo then brought out small platters of tiny fresh artichokes which had been quartered, boiled, sautéed in oil and served with bits of serrano ham. The final dish was a wonderful vegetable stew called alboraneo filled with garbanzo beans, green beans, red pepper, pumpkin, sweet potato and tomato pieces in a thick tomato-based sauce redolent with cinnamon, cloves, cumin and turmeric. We capped off the meal with a small bowl of rich dark chocolate ice cream and orange pieces drizzled with olive oil and sea salt. After relaxing a little it was time to offer our thanks and continue our journey.
We walked up and down the narrow streets of the village where nearly every building is painted white to meet Alberto near a large white building that houses the Museo de Costumbres y Artes Populares where we boarded the bus for the trip up the mountainside. We drove the switchbacks up the steep, rocky slope to a turnout with a viewpoint of the village below and the dramatic stony landscape around us (very reminiscent of Southern California). We could see the house where we’d just had our meal (easily identified by the pool and blue awning of the building next to it) and the medieval fortress above that, with the expanse of white houses stacked up on the slopes. When we got back to the town and parked in front of the same museum, we met Coco who had 3 tins of her olive oil from last year, which she sold to us for 10€ each. Then we trooped into the little restaurant across the street, Meson Atalaya, where they had a cooler with some local cheeses and a cabinet with some other selections of local olive oils (but they were out of the Las Quebradillas brand). A few of us made some selections before hopping back on the bus.
We left Zuheros about 3:45 and continued on toward Granada getting onto the N-432 to drive through the sea of grey-green olive trees covering nearly every bit of land in this area. People dozed or chatted as we drove along through the nearly-monotonous landscape of olives on rolling hills. We passed by the Citadel of Alcaudete, an Islamic-built fortress taken over and re-used by Christians; more and more olives; then the big Fortress of La Mota near the town of Alcalá, with a citadel dating back to the 8th century, and remains of a Gothic-Renaissance church. Soon the olives were replaced by golden wheat stubble and asparagus fields, green alfalfa and dry tan plowed earth on the flat plains, with olives only on the hillsides, and native vegetation and exposed rock on the higher hillsides. Then we went by the ruins of the castle of Moclín, built in the mid-13th century to help defend the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, and watch tower (atalaya) on top of another rocky outcropping surrounded by olive plantings.
By 4:40 we were only about a half hour from our hotel so Jonathan gave a history of the city of Granada from the Islamic Caliphates to Christian influence, expulsion of the Jews, interactions with Christopher Columbus, moriscos (Muslims baptized under duress), and much more. There were lots of low pine trees along the road as we descended to the large flat plain where the city of Granada is located, surrounded by low mountains on three sides. The olives on the slopes gave way to irrigated alfalfa, asparagus fields, row crops, houses and industrial buildings. We had to pass through a lot of commercial buildings and then get onto the A-44 motorway for a while to get to our hotel on the edge of the historic district. Jonathan pointed out Mulhacen, the highest peak on the mainland of Spain, up ahead of us as we drove, which at 3,482 meters gets snow in winter (only El Teide on Tenerife in the Canary Islands is higher). We took the exit onto the A-395 toward the ski resorts of the Sierra Nevada about 45 minutes further on, passing by the University, large apartment buildings, and lots of houses before descending into a long tunnel under the mountain and emerged on the other side to take the exit toward the Alhambra and the city center.
We arrived at our hotel, the Alhambra Palace about 5:25. Dating to the early 20th century, it was intended to accommodate the emerging romantic tourism of the time and is the second oldest actively managed hotel in Spain. After getting checked in we dispersed to our rooms with free time until 9:30pm. Dan and Susan went down the many steps to wander around, but most of the shops were closed for the holiday. Heading back at 6:23 church bells began to ring and suddenly there was a large volley of shots, as dozens of large bottle rockets were shot into the sky nearby, exploding in the air high up, going on and on, but when they finished the church bells continued on for another 20 seconds or so. As they were searching for a place to buy a light snack to take back to the hotel for dinner, they ran into Ina who was searching for a “parade” that was supposed to start near the church. We were a couple blocks from the church, and more people seemed to be headed in that direction, so we went over there, too, and stumbled into the group of people trailing a large Madonna on a platform down one of the narrow streets. This was the Procession of the Virgen del Rosario which left from Saint Domingo Church (Realejo) and had stopped along the way. Susan made her way up to near where the platform holding the statue was, the air perfumed with incense that priests were swinging in the air in front of the platform. Eventually the command was called to lift the large object to move forward, and the large marching band (all dressed in black) following began with percussion drills and then the other musicians joined in as the large procession slowly made its way down the narrow street lined with spectators, the local dressed in very fine dresses and suits in honor of the occasion. After everyone had passed by, Susan and Dan returned to the hotel, stopping along the way at the little Pizzaria Di Taglio’s Take Away to get a couple slices and sodas for dinner.