In the foothills of Sierra Nevada Natural Park in Andalucia – an area known as’Las Alpurjarras’ – a rather special olive oil has recently gone into production. Benizalte organic extra-virgin olive oil, now being distributed in the UK exclusively by Alma Organics, has been created by a group of determined small-holders passionate about their craft and keen to find a new way of producing a high quality oil whilst preserving centuries’ old methods of cultivation, and offering a fair price to the farmers concerned.
The oil is being processed via cold extraction in the small organic mill of La Flor de Alpujarra in the market town of Orgiva, Granada. What makes this venture so unusual is that the farmers themselves own the mill as a co-operative.
The cultivation of olives in Las Alpurjarras has a fascinating history and geography and illustrates how man can work in harmony with nature and harness its power. This region was occupied by the Moors for 250 years from the 13th century onwards. They used the melting snow of the Sierra Nevada mountains to irrigate the land below via a complex system of natural water channels, known as’acequias’ (pronounced ath-ek-ee-yas). In stark contrast to surrounding areas which are, in places, as arid as desert, Las Alpujarras are an oasis of lush green growth. Because of this, it’s an area which has attracted both Spanish and international tourism for many years.
However, until the formation of La Flor de Alpujarra many organic farmers in the region struggled to get organic certification for their oil as, although they all worked organically, they needed their olives to be pressed at a certified mill. As Nikki Mitchell, originally from the UK and now one of the founder members of Alma Organics explains: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The nearest organic mill was hundreds of miles away, because of this it was difficult for organic farmers to get a fair price for their crop when they were competing in a market with vast mono-crop plantationsÃ¢â‚¬Â.
The farms are built on hillside land which is steep and so the Moors created extensive terracing in order to plant their crops. The olives are harvested as they have been for centuries: nets are laid beneath the trees and the olives are shaken, raked and hand-picked from the tree. It’s a labour-intensive process and often the whole family, plus any willing volunteers that can be roped in, are required to help pick the ripe fruit while it is still young and full of flavour.
By grouping together and pooling resources to finance their own mill, the producers of Benizalte have found that they can create a delicious, high-quality oil and ensure that the farmers are paid a fair price for their hard work.
And what about the oil itself? Well, it’s smooth and full-bodied with slight peppery notes and has some unique properties. It is made from a combination of three varieties of olive; Picual, Manzanilla and Lechin, with the Picual de la Vega de Orgiva being unique to the Alpujarra region. This blend of olives results in a fruity oil which is green and peppery when young and matures to a smoother, slightly bitter oil over time. It also has very low acidity (between 0.2 and 0.3 degrees) which means that it is a very stable oil, which retains its flavour for long periods.
The oil is packaged in stylish tins, keeping out light and heat (both of which can quicken the deterioration of even the best olive oils) and reducing p&p costs for the consumer. The cold-pressing method ensures that the oil maintains its valuable natural antioxidants and vitamins.
All this adds up to an oil which not only tastes good, but supports the region’s organic farmers in preserving the unique biodiversity of the area whilst also making a living from their land.
Experience Benizalte for yourself by ordering from Alma Organics