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Green Gold Spain

A crop of new organic plantations in Andalusia have helped transform Spain into one of the world’s most prolific producers of great olive oil

By Jiffer Bourguignon

IT WAS BACK IN 1980 that Pedro Gomez de Baeza, then a business student at the University of Pennsylvania, first noticed a baffling price discrepancy in his supermarket. “Stores sold Italian olive oil for $10 a bottle, but the same product from Spain was less than $5,” de Baeza recalls. “I knew we produced high-quality olive oil in Spain, and I wanted the world to know it too.”

In the 1990s, de Baeza, by then a prominent Madrid financier, turned his focus to his family-owned estate, La Amarilla, in the picturesque town of Ronda in southern Andalusia. An order of nuns had once produced olive oil there, and de Baeza decided to revitalize the property’s oil-making capabilities, turning the home into the headquarters for the newly formed LA Organic.

De Baeza worked with agricultural experts and developed a network of 56 organic olive farmers and cooperatives across five vast Andalusian provinces, a concept he’s dubbed “pagos asociados.” (Only three percent of Spain’s groves grow organic olives, but the small amount accounts for an astounding 25 per- cent of organic olive groves worldwide.) Then de Baeza re- cruited renowned Bordeaux-trained oenologist Michel Rolland as a blending consultant, and cre- ative genius Philippe Starck to design the packaging.

Third-generation olive oil expert Maximiliano Arteaga is one of the “noses” responsible for LA Organic’s blend. His creation has hints of apple and almond from the sweet arbequina olive, and it bears a likeness to avocado in the fruity, slightly bitter hojiblanca—both of which are mixed into LA Organic’s product. As though leading a wine tasting, Arteaga explains the subtle undertones of each olive, some of which are too nuanced for the novice palate.

Similarities to wine making don’t end there. De Baeza and Starck have set their sights on agro-tourism. “We’ll design an almazara,” says de Baeza, a traditional mill–cum–visitor center that offers tastings and background information about olive oil production and the history of Andalusia, where the rocky soil provides prime conditions to produce 80 percent of Spain’s olive oil.

Standing on his terrace, de Baeza surveys the motley crop of wild olive trees scattered across the sloping landscape. “If I can contribute in a very small way to the view that Spain produces incredible olive oil while making people aware of this beautiful place…” He trails off. So far, so good.

Sea, Food

Once the dark, damp home of Barcelona’s fishermen, Barceloneta is the center of a fresh fish revolution

YOU WOULD BE HARD-PRESSED to find fresher seafood anywhere in Barcelona than in the tiny port neighborhood of Barceloneta. Bordered by a beach and a marina, this once dingy burg a racts everyone from glamorati to sun-soaked local families. But the real reason to go is the food.

Ignore the prefab frozen-seafood paella joints on the waterfront and head to one of the eight restaurants that form Barceloneta Cuina, an association of restaurateurs and chefs who have vowed to defend this proud neighborhood’s cuisine. Having pledged to use only the freshest ingredients, including seafood caught by local fishermen, BC aims to revive traditional recipes of forgo en dishes and to educate the public.

Restaurant Can Solé, one of the oldest neighborhood establishments, has reintroduced zarzuela, traditionally prepared for bourgeois theatergoers after the opera. Served in a cast-iron skillet, the dish is brimming with fresh gambas (shrimp), mussels, squid and monkfish bathed in a fragrant, garlicky broth.

The movement that has vowed to reinvigorate tradition still has room for innovation, however. At Kaiku, which sits on the tip of the peninsula jutting out into the sea, chef Hug Pla Cortés uses local seafood that he personally selects from the commercial fish market across the street to create dishes like zamburiña, baby scallops sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with Cortés’ own patent-pending elixir of ginger, lime, olive oil and black pepper.

“I love to see people enjoying real Barceloneta food,” Cortés says of his customers’ reactions to the zamburiña. “Sometimes they cry.”

Look in the refrigerator case for the next big rioja.

While most of the world quaff s red rioja, Spaniards have been gleefully sipping the white version for generations. Now, it’s going global: In 2007 the Rioja Regulatory Council allowed the planting of white varietals for the first time since 1925, so get your ice buckets ready.

When the new riojas hit shelves, they’ll have gotten a flavor face-lift of sorts. As a result of new technology and shorter aging times, the modern style is fresh and fruity. Harder-to-find traditional whites have complex notes of marzipan and nutmeg owing to aging process that sometimes takes as long as a decade.

Cervantes Institute wine expert Helio San Miguel prefers the traditional white riojas like López de Heredia Vina Tondonia but also recommends moderns including Cune Monopole, Vivanco and Palacios Remondo La Montesa.

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