Special Branch: Organic Picual and Arbequina Oils

Six years ago, Soledad Serrano-Lopez flew over from Spain to introduce herself and her extra virgin olive oil to Wellocks. We were gobsmacked at how good it was! From this point on, we formed a partnership and have never deviated from championing her oil. You could say that Special Branch was born out of this partnership as we talked about how could you improve upon perfection. Since our first meeting, Soledad and the team at Finca Duernas Olive Grove and Mill have put their heart and soul into doing just that, breaking the boundaries of extra virgin olive oil production.

So six years on, I set off to Cordoba in southern Spain to Finca Duernas to see how they’ve done it. I was met at the train station on a hot, sunny November day by Soledad, who took over as CEO of the family farm in 2010, her right-hand woman Sabrina and her brother Pepe, who is the farm manager.

The history of the estate here is tangible – over 200 years in the making – and this year we are going to experience the harvest and oil production at every stage. Immediately, we were on a road to discovery – or more correctly off road – as we were driven through an amazing grove of 150 year-old and even older olive trees to the summit of the farm. And wow, what a view! This vast 600-hectare site and its 100,000 trees rolled out in front of us. The old heritage trees, with their massive gnarly triple trunks, spread haphazardly over the hills, all planted before machine harvesting had been dreamed of. In contrast, the younger trees – just 40-50 years old with single trunks – march across the landscape in evenly spread militarily precise lines, making their care and harvesting super efficient.

Soledad explained how the family had transformed the farm with the aim of producing the very best extra virgin olive oil – having a good one was just not good enough for them! The first step in the process was to make the farm organic. That meant stopping using pesticides and undergoing a three-year detox before it could be considered organic. In most farms, the land between the olive trees is stark – almost concrete looking. But at Finca Duernas, there is grass which has to be regularly cut to stop it from taking nutrients away from the trees. To help control pests, there are special bottles in every tree with a hole in the top. The insects climb in but they can’t get back out – ingenious!

We had timed our visit to perfection as the olive harvest was in full swing with three teams working full on. Although normal for Finca Duernas, this is unusual for the area and on our journey to the farm we hadn’t seen anyone else harvesting. And this is one of the secrets of the success of its Envero oil.

The name Envero is important. It comes from the Latin ‘viride’ which means green, fresh and youthful – and this, in essence, is what the olives are when Finca Duernas chooses to pick them. The farm harvests when the olive is just changing from green to yellow to purple. Soledad explains that this is when the tree is saying ‘pick me now to get the maximum fresh anti-oxidants, nutrients, minerals and flavour’. What you do not get by picking at this stage however is the maximum yield. That’s why producers have historically waited for another month at least for the olive to go fully black – and past its best – to get the best yield. At Finca Duernas, out of one kilo of olives they get a maximum 9% of Envero olive oil and in some cases only 7%. The average yield for olive oil is 25% – so picking early is a massive call to make financially! However if you want the best tasting fruit juice…

Old traditions do not die here but are enhanced and the harvesting bears this out. Nets are precisely laid between the trees to catch the olives. Each tree has a protective webbing around the base of its trunk and the tractor comes in with a padded grabber and shakes the tree. The tractor’s efforts are supported by three men with long poles who smash the branches. You need to be careful at this point as the olives fly everywhere and, wow, the ground actually shakes! Very quickly, the team’s work is done and they move onto the next tree. Before you know it, the whole row is done and it feels like an earthquake has just happened.

Waiting in the wings are the next team – on quad bikes and on foot. The bikers shoot past pulling the net ropes to corral all of the olives into one net which is running in the opposite direction. The ends of this net are then hooked up to a winch to form a long funnel. This is wound in towards the trailer and onto another net which is then hauled into the trailer. Talk about slick! This is like a Formula 1 pitstop in action as the filled trailer then races to the mill with its precious cargo as though every second counts.

Why so fast? Because every second does count during this next stage of the process. As soon as the olive is harvested, it starts to oxidise and this is not good. In other farms and mills, the olives are generally collected and sent to a mill the following day where they wait their turn to be processed. In some case it can be several days before they are pressed.

At Finca Duernas, the time from harvest to mill is 10 minutes and now the investment in building the mill in the middle of this massive farm starts to make sense. They have ultimate control. Each load tipped has its quality assessed and logged by the experienced team. This team decides which hopper it goes to depending on the quality. Only the very best get to go into Envero – our Special Branch Arbequina oil – and Picual; others are used for the farm’s standard quality oil while those that don’t make the grade will be sent for bulk pressing.

The difference between Arbequina and Picual is the flavour – and how they are used in the kitchen. Arbequina is more fruity and best for drizzling on fish, salads and baking; Picual is more robust and peppery, tasting like green artichoke and good for cooking, frying and meat.

Because Finca Duernas’ olives don’t touch the ground – unlike like other producers who wait for them to fall onto the ground and then essentially hoover them up – there is no need to wash them and this is good as the last thing they need is water. Once crushed, the olives pass through to the grinder and again Finca Duernas uses a different process here to their competitors. The olives are cooled and a massive effort is made to keep them under 24 degrees at all stages – if the olives and juice get anywhere near to this temperature the harvest stops!

The juice passes into chambers and when the first chamber is only half full, they start to fill the next and keep switching between chambers to avoid heat building up. Another massive point of difference here is that the whole process lasts for only 20 minutes and not the usual two hours. Why? Well, it’s very simple really. The speed and temperature maintains the fruit juice at its peak by not destroying all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients. If grinding goes on for two hours, the massive increase in heat extracts much more oil but reduces the nutrients and affects flavour. For Soledad and her team, the objective at every stage is to protect the goodness and flavour – not maximise the yield.

But we haven’t finished yet. Half an hour into the F1 process and we are onto the last but one stage. We head to the filtering room and the smell overwhelms all of your senses – it’s amazing! Tomatoes are my first thought, then bananas and then it all comes together as the smell of the freshest fruit juice, which is exactly what it is. Remarkably, there is no oil smell at all.

The filtering room is like Fort Knox, a storehouse of all their treasures. Huge stainless steel tanks line the room, meticulously clean and polished. What a sight! The oil is filtered here and passes into the relevant tank. Storage and bottling has been developed based on wine production and nitrogen is injected into the tanks to expel all of the oxygen so there is no oxidisation at any point. The oil is only bottled to order.
Special Branch Extra Virgin Arbequina oil does not have time to get used to these beautiful tanks as it goes almost immediately on its way to the next stage – bottling. It was incredible to see something that Soledad had talked to us about six years ago at Wellocks become fact in front of our eyes as the oil from the olives we had seen harvested an hour earlier goes into our beautiful Special Branch bottles. It has taken six years of investment and hard work but Finca Duernas had done it – one hour from tree to bottle. Talk about slick! This is what freshness is all about.

We were so lucky as our Special Branch Extra Virgin Arbequina bottles were all lined up ready to go and they marched down the production line like proud soldiers. Once filled, another shot of nitrogen was added to expel any oxygen just before the caps were screwed on, ensuring no oxidisation would take place.
As the bottles were packed after labelling, I was so proud that Wellocks is a part of this amazing operation. I was also very touched when Soledad said that we were the catalyst for this incredible process and product because we committed on day one to their project giving them the confidence to go ahead and embark on this amazing adventure of discovery and revolutionary techniques. The result is that Finca Duernas has well and truly broken the mould for extra virgin olive oil production!

I couldn’t resist cracking open a bottle and pouring some into the beautiful blue glasses provided. Why blue? Well, the idea is that you can’t see the oil so you let your other senses take over. We held the glasses covered with a lid in our palms carefully to warm them up, swirling the oil around inside like a fine wine. The tension was building and we just had to have a taste. A clink of the glasses, a toast – ‘salud’ – and then the aromas hit us. Wow! I was instantly transported back to the filter room and the smell of fresh fruit juice, tomatoes and bananas, and I had to have drink. Here goes… it’s like velvet, just coating my mouth, and the flavours matching the aromas are sending my tastebuds into overdrive.

A warm peppery-ness hits my throat – not a wrenching spiciness but a smooth, beautiful one and this is where the secret of Envero and Finca Duernas comes to life. As well as all the flavour and nutrients that Soledad and her team have worked to protect during the growing, harvesting and processing, they have managed to preserve the essential goodness – the anti-oxidants – of the fruit and bottle it. They set out to improve on perfection and boy, have they done it: Envero olive oil – the best of which becomes Special Branch Extra Virgin Arbequina – has been voted one of the best organic oils in the world.

Our picual oil received a gold award in the Olive Japan International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition 2017 and the arbequina received silver in the organic category of the EcoTrama Plata Competition 2017.