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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

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Looking Back on Lo Mejor de La Gastronómía 2009: San Sebastian Chefs' Conference Celebrates Spanish Extra Virgen Olive Oil with an Epilogue-Slide Show of the Olive Harvest

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Lo Mejor de La Gastronomía*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.)

The Lo Mejor de La Gastronómía chefs’ conference, held each November in the Rafael Moneo-designed Kursaal center in the stunning Basque seaside city of San Sebastián, is among the world’s top five culinary events. But Lo Mejor de La Gastronómía is a culinary conference with a difference, since almost all the attention is on chefs, primarily cocina de vanguardia - avant-garde cuisine chefs from around the world, but with a focus on Spain’s star chefs who come at the end of each year to show their best dishes and techniques from the current year and give glimpses of what is to come the following year.

This year’s Lo Mejor de La Gastronómía 2009 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 very first dish by Vitor Manuel Da Silva from Le Poivron Rouge in Portugal, which was called Mi Conserva de Sardina, featured a olive-oil dressed sardine, a razor clam and a mussel in a shellfish tin, complete with a rolled-up lid. Fernando Pérez Arellano of Zaranda in Madrid presented a seawater-colored, arbequina olive oil-infused “gazpacho en aspic al aceite de arbequina,” which was gelatinous rectangle on which he had perched a clam, a cockle, a bit of sea urchin, a goose barnacle and several tiny mussels, with several pools of olive oil-sea urchin mayonnaise alongside. Another spectacular dish was “Tomate. . .un salmorejo con caviar,” a lovely, re-constructed light orange-red tomato “shell” filled with a delicious salmorejo--made with an extra virgen olive oil with a distinct personality--from Jaén’s own chef Raúl Clemente from Restaurante Paquito Diaz in Baeza.

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.

The jury, an international panel that included Rafael García Santos, Cristino Álvarez (Spain), Duarte Calvao (Portugal), Licia Granello (Italy), Jean Paul Perez (Belgium), Bob Noto (Italy), Jacques Trefoir (Brazil) and myself, judged the creations on culinary virtuosity, imagination, originality, and aesthetics, as well as the techniques used in making each dish and on how the presence of extra virgen olive oil was handled by each chef. In all these dishes, there was a lightness and fresh, healthy flavors that would be hard, if not impossible, to achieve with animal fats, so good Spanish extra virgen olive oils have become essential to achieving this healthful effect in kitchens around the western world. Matto Baronetto was awarded the 18,000 Euro prize and a sculpture trophy designed by Jaén artist Antonio Blanca.

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.

The daily tastings, of some dozen different quality Jaén extra Virgen olive oils were led by Anunciación Carpio Dueñas, a biologist who specializes in olive oil. Sra. Carpio and Jesús Zafra Ocaña from the Tourism, Local Development and Sustainability office of the Diputación Provincial of Jaén set up and led me through a private tasting of ten high quality, mostly Picual variety-based extra virgen olive oils from their province.

Using a map to show me the location in Jaén province of each olive oil producer, they expertly explained each of the different extra virgen olive oils, which included the newly bottled Vadolivo Gran Selección Royal, a deep green-yellow, pungent, grassy, complex, silky oil made from the Royal olive variety in the wild game region of the Sierra de Cazorla; Eolea Zumo de Oliva (olive “juice”), a very pungent, grassy, piquant, almondy, full-bodied blend of Picual, Picudo and Arbequina olives grown around Mengíbar near the famous town of Bailén; Oro Bailén Reserva Familiar, a deep green and intensely aromatic (fresh cut grass, plantains) with pronounced, gutsy flavors of stone fruits, but with a smooth, silky feel on the palate and Ánima Áurea, a much lighter, more neutral flavored Picual and Arbequina blend, both from the immediate area of Bailén; and Tierras de Canena Escencia Milénario, a green-gold, finely aromatic, light, smooth, silky, balanced oil from the higher altitude Picual-based orchards near the monumental towns of Baeza and Úbeda in north-central Jaén.

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.

Two of the last oils came from the mountainous areas of northeastern Jaén province near La Puerta de Segura. Oro de Géave, which produces only 25.000 bottles of ecologically cultivated, unfiltered extra virgen olive oil was typically cloudy, had a nose of riper apple and was pungent with appley, bitter almond, picante flavors full of personality. Fuenroble, the Jaén oil with the greatest international distribution, comes from the Sierra de Segura National Park area. It had a deep green-chartreuse color, a nose with some grassiness, but more apple and green tomato and was very smooth and silky with complex, pleasing, apple, bitter almond and green tomato 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 End–


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 (over-ripeness 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.

(Double click on the image above for a large screen view of my slide show on the fascinating harvest & milling process.)

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.

(Double click on the image above for a large screen view
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; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected):

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