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How Coffee & Olive Oil have developed in Spain
Friday, September 22, 2023 @ 8:21 PM

Coffee and olive oil in Spain have more in common than you might think and unfortunately not for the right reasons.  Both are wonderful products and play such an important role in the Mediterranean lifestyle or diet: Olive oil for its health properties and culinary value and coffee for its social implications.

However, history and social circumstances have led to a general misunderstanding of what is actually good olive oil and what is good coffee and this lack of knowledge and false belief has led a nation along for generations and only recently are people starting to wake up to this misconception. Who would have thought that when a Spaniard working at an olive mill in his local village gave you a few litres of olive oil from the recent harvest, you would have probably received what is now referred to as just "olive oil" - not extra virgin. Certainly, the elder generations and those in their 40’s grew up with low-grade olive oil at home convinced they were consuming the nectar from the sun-blasted olive groves of their precious homeland. But this is through no fault of their own, technology available then was unable to prevent the contamination of residues left on the millstones and knowledge around the needs of the olive tree was no way near as advanced as they are today. So people all over the Mediterranean got used to what they believed was top-quality olive oil but this is one example where technology has actually helped us obtain the best from nature and traditional methods are in fact detrimental to the quality. Nowadays all olives are blended into a pulp and centrifuged not crushed with millstones and then pressed through mats, or at least they should be.


These classical traditional techniques that some customers find enchanting and some brands use as a marketing pull are actually a warning sign that you should probably stay well clear of them. It is impossible to achieve the same quality in a “traditional mill” when compared to a modern mill. But what this has created is a palate for poor quality. So what tastes "good" because it is all they know is actually bad olive oil. So much so that many producers centre on this palate of tastes to ensure their sales even though they are capable of producing better quality oils and unfortunately still today the majority of olive oils in supermarkets are of poor quality, especially in the UK. Some regions deliberately produce oil from frozen olives, as it is the local taste that they have become used to over the years. Naturally, the taste is awful for those who know good olive oil. So what we end up with is a leading nation in olive oil production that doesn’t really understand what good olive oil is, or better said if given a bad olive oil would almost definitely say it was good, really anyone can appreciate a good olive oil once given the opportunity to taste it, the fruitiness speaks for itself.

I always have top-quality olive oil at home and when friends and family come round for a meal they will always be served it. Once they smell it and taste it they are always blown away; "wow! It smells so good, what’s in it?” they ask, thinking that it carried some fruit additive or infusion and the simple answer is nothing, it should always smell like that…fruit juice. It should not smell like oil, you should instantly know this came from a fruit. So only time will educate the people as to what real olive oil should taste and smell like and that will be no easy task with bulk producers more interested in making the extra penny, but this is where regulations and quality controls should be stricter. So learn more about olive oil and how you can recognise a real extra virgin.



Coffee has a similar story. What is known in Spain and other countries as café torrefacto or Café Torrado is a coffee, which has received special toasting, special because it is different, not because it is better. Back in the 40’s there was a huge shortage in coffee and it was extremely expensive so substitute drinks started to appear in households around the country such as chicory root or cereal seeds toasted with sugar and their consumption became widespread. This same technique of toasting with sugar was applied to coffee too as it was believed that the coffee maintained its freshness for longer as the fine coating of sugar was thought by some to delay the aroma escaping from the bean and the oxygen entering the bean, as modern techniques of preservation were obviously not available. But the fact that sugar was involved in the process helped tremendously with its success after many years of sugared chicory root. 

But what was this process of Torrefacto and what results did it achieve? 

Well, a coffee bean acquires its taste and aroma during the toasting process, with Torrefacto café, sugar is added to the beans. In the past up to 20% of the volume but now it is regulated at a maximum of 15%. This sugar is added in the last stage of the toasting process as the temperature is at its highest, approximately 200ºC, the sugar caramelises and forms a shiny film around the coffee bean. The only thing this achieves is a darker coffee in colour and more bitter in taste. The carbonised sugar masks the majority of the coffee's qualities in terms of taste and aroma thus the technique was only really justified when the coffee bean was of very poor quality as the technique provides a certain uniformity and balance to the taste. However, nowadays its consumption is not recommended and it is considered harmful to one’s health.

Firstly because it is much harder for the digestive system to cope with and thus people with ulcers or stomach problems will have difficulty consuming this coffee but more importantly it has been banned in many countries around the world, as it is believed to be carcinogenic. This technique is only known or used in Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Mexico, France and Portugal. In the rest of the world, it is unheard of.

Although its use and consumption were perfectly understandable in those days it became a habit and the norm within Spanish society and continued even when economic conditions had improved.  When the coffee sector was opened up in 1980, controlled up to then only by the state, laws changed and a new market was made available for large companies to tap into. Although they were unaware in those days, they took advantage of the widespread torrefacto coffee, which was approved by the state, cheap, balanced and well accepted by the Spanish consumers and started to mass-produce it. This not only convinced the public that coffee should be strong and bitter but it also promoted the habit of adding more milk to the coffee to make it more acceptable and logically limited the size of the servings.

Slowly but surely 100% natural coffee started to make its way in but initially only by means of blends, at first 80% torrefacto -20% natural. As time moved on these percentages started to change but there is still a long road ahead before the Spanish really start to appreciate 100% natural coffee. Today we can still see manufacturers offering especially to bars and restaurants 50/50 blends. However, in the north of Spain it is now far more common to find 100% natural coffee and the further north we go less torrefacto you will find. On the other hand in Andalucía you will find 60/40 (natural/torrefacto) and 50/50 and even in some villages you can still find 100% torrefacto, which is quite incredible nowadays and shouldn’t be allowed quite frankly.

 So, in conclusion, please make sure your olive oil is fruity and your coffee is 100% natural, your body and your palate will thank you for it.


Like 0


Brian Jackson said:
Saturday, September 23, 2023 @ 6:30 PM

That is a very interesting article, thank you. I did notice when I moved to Spain that the olive oil here did have a fruity taste. Very nice it is too.

Paul Nigel Reynard said:
Sunday, September 24, 2023 @ 9:53 AM

Please tell me what brand(s) are a top quality olive oil. Thank you

eos_ian said:
Sunday, September 24, 2023 @ 12:31 PM

Fruity Green/ freshly cut grass - Venta Del Baron (it is a blend of varieties) , this is one of my favourites and it is great year after year. Then Oro Bailén is very good too , easier to find in supermarkets ( Picual variety) but not as good as Venta del Baron. If you want an olive oil which is still fruity but not peppery - Abbae de Queiles - ( Arbequina variety)

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