Star Chefs Compete Using Jaén Province’s Picudo Variety Olive Oil
Plus An Epilogue Featuring Slide Shows of the End of the Olive Harvest in Jaén with Bailén de Oro & in Córdoba with Soledad Serrano at Beloyana
With a visit to the fabulous Mesón Juan Peña in Córdoba
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By Gerry Dawes
Premio Nacional de Gastronomia 2003
(Click on slide show to amplify and see full screen.)
This year’s Lo Mejor de La Gastronómía this year included a standout presentation from Ferran Adrià, the man called “the world’s greatest chef,” and jaw-dropping demonstrations from Can Roca’s Joan Roca, El Poblet’s Quique Dacosta and super-star pastelero (desserts and chocolates) Paco Torreblanca. Torreblanca, one of the greatest pastry chefs in the world, has devised ways of using Spanish olive oil instead of butter in his desserts and chocolates, so now all his lines of supernal Totel and Barry Callebaut desserts and chocolates use no animal fats in their preparation.
One of the highlights of the event was the VI Annual “Jaén, Paraiso Interior” Premio Internacional de Cocina con Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra (International Cooking Prize for the Best Dish Featuring Spanish Extra Virgen Olive Oil), which carried a an astounding First Prize of 18,000 Euros (about $25,000). Sponsored by the Junta de Andalucía and the Diputación de Jaén, the competition featured 11 chefs from Spain (Madrid, Alicante, Jaén and the Basque Vizcaya province), France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Each chef, a finalist chosen from a field of 135 contestants from seven countries in preliminary contest, presented a creative cuisine dish that used Spanish extra virgen olive as a prominent taste component.
Felipe López, President of the Diputación Provincial (regional government) de Jaén, said his administration was sponsoring the contest because Lo Mejor de LaGastronómía offers “an extraordinary showcase, since it represents cocina de vanguardia, for showing the excellence of the great olive oils of the province of Jaén.”
Rafael García Santos, Founder & Director of the conference, commenting on the leap in quality that extra virgen olive oils from Jaén have made–in the six years since they have been giving the prize at Lo Mejor de LaGastronómía–said “Jaén extra virgen olive oil producers are doing ever more select olive oils. They have changed their production techniques, harvesting and the final product, which has shown a steady evolution in quality. Before Jaén was known as the biggest producer and now the name is associated with brands of extra virgen olive oil that have become universally recognized for their high quality, which has brought world-class prestige to Jaén and raised the value of the product. This has made the oils of the province of Jaén an ever more important player in top kitchens everywhere.”
This writer came to cover the conference and the “Jaén, Paraiso Interior” Premio Internacional de Cocina con Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra cooking contest for Foods From Spain News. But, I was soon pressed into service as a member of the jury panel by Lo Mejor de LaGastronómía’s founder and director, Rafael García Santos, whose directive I followed with honor and with gusto, since it entailed tasting all the finalists’ wonderfully creative dishes, accompanied by glasses of Spanish cava. The competing chefs, while making extra virgen olive oil a discernible component, still managed to smoothly integrate the oils into each dish and make most of them visually spectacular.
The winner of the competition was Carlo Cracco’s chef de cuisine, Matteo Baronetto (Cracco, Milan, Italy) , who wowed the judges with his Crema Quemada al Aceite con Cañaillas (Crême Brûlée made with extra virgen olive and winkles, or sea snails) scented with vanilla. This sensational dish was presented in two artistic silver serving vessels, one resembling a tea steeper and holding the Crema Quemada, the other a scalloped silver dish holding butter-like ribbons of a creamy extra virgen olive oil that could have passed for butter except for their distinctive olive oil flavor.
Surrounding this intensive star chef conference is a gastronomic fair featuring products from around Spain: Joselito and other hams from Guijuelo (Salamanca), the Dehesa de Extremadura and Jabugo; a daily walk around tasting of more than 100 wines from Navarra; a multitude of stands promoting Spanish foods–cheeses, paprika, olives, tinned seafood, etc.; cookbook publishers’ stands from Montagud, De Re Coquinaría and Everest; and, of course, Spain’s superb extra virgen olive oils. One of the most frequented stands was the “Jaén, Paraiso Interior” (Inland Paradise) pavilion itself, where there were daily guided tastings of the fine extra Virgen olive oils, sponsored by the Junta de Andalucía and the Diputación Provincial de Jaén, a province that is literally one vast picudo variety olive orchard. The olive orchards of Jaén are so vast in fact that the Spanish poet Manuel Machado (brother of Antonio Machado, one of Spain’s best known 20th Century poets), in his famous “Ode to Andalucía” described the province simply as “silvery Jaén” due to the fact that in the slightest breeze the olive trees provide a constant light show of the dark-green leaf tops of the olivares alternating with flashes of silvery grey from their flip sides.
From Escañuela, northwest of the capital, Jaén, the Cortijo de la Torre 100% Picual extra virgen olive oil was a pretty, deep green, had a pungent nose of fresh grass, green apples and green plantains, and was full of character with grassy, picante, almond and artichoke flavors that reached every corner of the mouth; from Torredonjimeno, just west of Jaén, Carmen Edición Limitada showed a lighter chartreuse color, had a ripe nose of apple and stone fruits and was very suave with only light bitterness and no picante flavors, which makes it ideal for dishes that call for a light olive oil flavor; from Pegalar, east of Jaén, Melgarejo Selección Gourmet was a pretty green-gold color, had a very clean nose with some typically grassy and appley aromas, and showed great structure, personality and balance with very pleasant grassy, bitter almond and olive flavors.
I felt privileged to have been personally educated about the extra virgen olive oils of Jaén and the flavors of the Picual olive variety. Later on this same trip, at Adolfo Muñoz Tapas Bar in Toledo, right next to the Cathedral, I would get another impromptu tasting, this time with owner José I. Millán Valderrama, President of Valderrama, producer of extra virgen olive oils from orchards in Castilla La Mancha and Córdoba. And upon returning to New York, I was invited to come to the olive harvest at Beloyana in Córdoba and I still owe a visit to Extremadura to the estate of the Marqués de Valdueza, which produces oils with Arbequina, Picual, Hojiblanca and the rare Morisco olives.
I have a feeling that my education in the great extra virgen olive oils of Spain is just beginning.
The next phase of my olive oil education produced this slide show on the tail-end of the olive harvest (la recogida) and Bailén de Oro olive oil mill (almazara) near Bailén in the Andalucian Jaén province with Anuncia Carpio and José Gálvez as my guides and luncheon hosts at the Resturante del Hotel Bailén (a former Parador de Turismo). Those of you who have ever driven through Jaén know that it is one huge olive orchard. Anuncia Carpio is emphatic in pointing out that "these photos are the last of the harvest, when the olives are too ripe (overripeness is something that doesn't stop many winemakers these days!) and most of them have fallen to the ground. The highest quality olive oils are extracted when the olives are green (during the first two weeks of November) and all of the fruit is taken directly from the trees."
Still, if you have never seen the olive harvest, even the end of la recogida is fascinating as I think you can see in the photographs in the following two slide shows.
After Jaén, I went on to take in another version of la recogida, this time with my old friend, Javier Hidalgo, owner of La Gitana Manzanilla (see COPA Jerez report and article on Manzanilla). We visited the Beloyana olive oil producing estate of Soledad Serrano near Espejo, a half hour southeast of Córdoba.
of my slide show on the fascinating harvest & milling process.)
We spent the night at the Beloyana estate and my companion, Kay and I got a chance to go into Córdoba and arrived at the gates of La Mezquita just as the 5:30 bells were tolling. La Mezquita closes at six, but the security guards refused to let us in even for a quick look at it and closed the door in our faces, even after we told them that we had come to Córdoba especially for that. They were quite antipático in the bargain. These people live off tourism, but they seem to really dislike tourists, or what they think are tourists.
We strolled around the old quarter until it was time for the taberna/mesón of my old friend, Juan Peña, to open. Juan was not due until 10 p.m., but I had an employee call him and he soon appeared as did a selection of his incredible dishes, including the best salmorejo and berenjenas fritas (fried eggplant sticks) I have ever tasted. Juan makes a number of of salmorejos--his spectacularly good tomato-based one is the benchmark for this wonderful thick gazpacho-like dish that can be used like a sauce with his supernal fried eggplant. He also makes a green-and-white asparagus salmorejo and garnishes both with chopped Pedroches jamón Ibérico (a little-known, but now widely served ham from a mountain valley on the north side of the Sierra Morena mountains.
Stayed tuned for a slide show (coming soon) on la recogida at Soledad Serrano's Beloyana estate and the food at Mesón Juan Peña, one of the greatest tapas bars in Spain.
About the author
Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine.
Experience Spain With Gerry Dawes: Culinary Trips to Spain & Travel Consulting on Spain
Gerry Dawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): email@example.com