Lleida: Catalonia's olive oil country

Lleida: Catalonia's olive oil country

by Ariadna Boixader 11 November 2015

Olive oil from Lleida in Catalonia is steeped in tradition, regarded as some of the best in the world and is even protected under European law. Ariadna Boixader shares her love for the region and its famous product.

Ariadna Boixader is an anthropologist with a true passion for extra virgin olive oil and olive trees. She returned to her childhood village of only 200 people in the heart of the Catalonian olive oil and wine country, in the north east of Spain, to set up a food travel agency.

Ariadna Boixader is an anthropologist with a true passion for extra virgin olive oil and olive trees. After becoming a specialist in rural studies overseas, she decided to go back to her childhood village of only 200 people in the heart of the Catalonian olive oil and wine country, in the north east of Spain. Along with partner Ignasi, a photographer, she decided to instil her own personal touch on the local food culture by founding Olea Soul, a highly specialised food travel agency, which caters to intrepid foodies who search for the most authentic and delicious off the beaten track adventures.

In the Catalonian province of Lleida, in the north-east of Spain, there’s a silent but subtly thriving territory of hard-working farmers and producers whose main objective is to produce the highest quality extra virgin olive oil in the most sustainable manner. The oil has been made here since Roman times, but in the 17th century the Duke of Medinaceli introduced a type of olive tree from Palestine. It was later named Arbequina, after the local village of Arbeca, and because of its high yield is now the most cultivated olive tree around the world. It’s also protected and promoted by the Controlled Designation of Origin of Les Garrigues, which was the first olive oil to get recognition in Spain back in 1975 and later certified as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) by the EU in 1996.

Despite its relatively small size, innovation in olive oil production and its premium wine-making counterparts make this a very special and rarely-trodden foodie destination. Welcome to a land where tradition and innovation in food dance side by side and where local chefs play the perfect combination of classic and creative cuisine.

Landscapes and history

Olive oil is so much more than a healthy salad dressing or your most beloved cooking companion. In Catalonia’s olive oil country, it’s a lifestyle; a way of relating to the landscape and its fragile nature, the connection to our most Mediterranean identity. During harvest season, from mid-October to mid-January, life at the villages runs around the olives’ clock. Olive trees are carefully watched all year round, heads up looking at the sky hoping for the rain to come at the perfect time.

Much has evolved since the blooming olive oil industry of the 18th and 19th centuries in Lleida, especially in the southern regions. Some small villages had up to five mills, illustrating the importance of oil to the local economy. Continued bad harvests, the 1929 economic crash – which stopped the export trade – and the Spanish Civil War marked the end of olive oil’s golden age. But in recent years, some municipalities have been recovering their most valued heritage. Farmers and local associations are doing a priceless job of restoring the dry-stone architecture that spreads across olive groves and vineyards. From perfectly-shaped terraces to singular vaulted cabins and walled cave shelters to cisterns, this heritage is a genuine testimony of human settlement and cultivation practices.

A traditional dry-farmed olive grove by the mountains
Olive oils
Colourful oils made from different olives and harvested at different times

Olive oil today

Most farmers belong to a local agricultural cooperative, but in recent years both younger farmers and outsider investors have been opening small, private mills. This new generation of olive oil makers have been working on signature extra virgin olive oils, experimenting with Arbequina or with ancient and imported trees, playing with different harvest times and trying out new technology or agricultural methods. Some cooperatives are also working in that direction, carefully studying and catering to more demanding markets. Of course, there will always be the loyal producers who toe a more traditional line on olive oil too. The truth is that any olive oil aficionado can now have a few bottles on the table and let both their imagination and palate run wild.

oil on toast
Unfiltered oil on toast

Lleida's cuisine

Olive oil is the essence of Catalonian cuisine and has a sacred spot in the pantry of every family. Food here can’t be made without it, as it’s not only the cooking medium but the base of many local traditional dishes, from sweet pastries such as orelletes to pork or cod dishes. Younger chefs are bringing back old dishes and recreating them in a new light, experimenting with textures and tastes and, what’s most interesting, finishing them with lots of extra virgin olive oil for a final burst of flavour.

Arbequina extra virgin olive oils are exquisite, complex, well balanced, fruity and nutty, with notes of artichoke, apple and green almond. Early harvest oils – which contain more polyphenols – have greener flavours and sometimes deliciously bitter and peppery notes. Late harvest oils, on the other hand, lose some of their pungency and become sweeter. Arbequina coupages can also have notes of banana, flowers and anise. The type of terrain, whether the groves are dry-farmed or irrigated, the time of harvest and characteristics of the process can all result in different flavour profiles, which contribute to both the growing olive oil culture and having fun in the kitchen.

Local producers are not only innovating in olive oil itself, but also in related products, such as sweet and spicy olive oil jams, olive paté and tapenade, olive oil chocolate praline and even sea water cured Arbequina table olives.

Olive oil jam
A stick of goat's cheese with sweet olive oil jam
Jam oil and bread
Home-made tomato and rosemary jam with olive oil foam and farmer's bread

On tour

Lleida’s olive oil country is just one and a half hour’s drive from Barcelona. Visitors will find olive oil and food activities taking place all year, from accompanying a local chef to the farmers’ market as a prelude to an olive oil-focused cookery class to learning everything about olive oil with a professional tasting. No olive oil tour can go without a visit to at least two different olive oil mills, which are open all year. And it is obligatory to stop and stare at the magnificent historic and well-preserved mills to see just how much the olive oil industry has evolved.

During the harvesting season, hearty farmers’ breakfasts, the chance to pick olives from the tree and fresh oil tastings are just a few of the events on offer. The villages are buzzling with activity and olive oil fairs take place almost every weekend. Spring, autumn and early summer are best for meditation activities at the local olive groves and the guided hiking and cycling tours across olive oil country are breathtaking. Whether you’re planning a one-day excursion or a longer tour that includes other activities and a stay at a charming rural hotel or B&B, Lleida is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Image copyright

All images © Olea Soul 2015.

olive harvesting
The dry-stone vaulted cabins of Lleida