New Horizons for Pago Baldíos de San Carlos
Originally the 600ha Finca La Laguna was largely given over to the cultivation of Virginia tobacco. Photo by: ©Pago Baldíos de San Carlos
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
An olive oil maker in Extremadura has given a unique new dimension to its star product. Some have called them lunatics, but Vicente Sánchez and family, and their Full Moon oil, are successfully taking on the biggest foreign market of them all.
It was a surrealistic sight. I was driving through the countryside outside the village of Majadas del Tiétar (Cáceres), on a dark autumn night, when I came upon a collection of industrial warehouses. Outside in the courtyard, under the powerful floodlights, was a figure in white silk pyjamas practising what looked very much like kung fu.
The ghost of Bruce Lee appears in the wilds of Extremadura? Actually there was a much more prosaic explanation. Pago Baldíos de San Carlos, one of the region’s most successful olive oil companies, was holding a party to celebrate 1. the start of the harvest for this year’s Full Moon olive oil and 2. the promising debut of this extremeño brand in the increasingly important Chinese market. Which explains the kung fu fighter, not to mention the Chinese dancers, the famous Chinese singer who gave a priceless performance of ‘La Paloma’ in highly-accented Castilian, and the throng of Chinese guests devouring the pinchos of ham and cheese and the extremeño red wine - all in a tobacco drying-shed kitted out for the occasion.
An unusual set-up
The Pago Baldíos de San Carlos is an unusual set-up, no doubt about it. Its unusualness starts with its geographical position in the valley of the river Tiétar, below the Gredos mountains, a part of Extremadura much better known for the production of tobacco, soft fruits, oranges and cherries than for olives. When Don Vicente Sánchez, a landowner whose 600ha Finca La Laguna was largely given over to the cultivation of Virginia tobacco, made known his plan to make a fine olive oil on the estate, locals thought nothing would come of it. This was not, and would never be, olive-growing land. Vicente forged ahead, however, planting a total of 120ha of arbequina and cornicabra olive trees – varieties seldom found in Extremadura.
Eight years after the first plantings and three after the first production of olive oil, the sceptics have been trounced and the vision of this far-sighted farmer, entirely vindicated. The Sánchez family’s olive oil has won prizes in the world’s major olive oil contests, including gold medals at Extrema Selección, L’Orciolo d’Oro in Pesaro (Italy) and a silver medal at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition (all in 2009). Last year its all-arbequina brand merited a special mention in China’s most important olive oil fair, Oil China. Pago Baldios de San Carlos is present in the kitchens of premier-league Spanish chefs like Arzak, Berasategui, Adrià, Subijana, Arola, Arbelaitz and Dacosta. In terms of exports the success of the brand has been astounding. In its three years of life Pago Baldios de San Carlos has elbowed its way into no less than 25 countries on all five continents, making it perhaps the single extremeño food product with the highest profile on a global scale.
Few extremeño food producers, it seems to me, are quite so sure-footed in their approach to marketing. At the top of their range of various coupages, each appealing to different world markets (the arbequina/cornicabra blend Oro de San Carlos, for example, is big in Germany and France, while the 100% cornicabra does the business in Brazil) is the product they call Full Moon. Presented in a cuboid, matte-black bottle that looks like some chic designer perfume bottle, the design is curious and attention-grabbing. According to Ana María Sánchez, the presentation is just right for the gift market, and looks the part in airport shops and upmarket souvenir emporia. She describes a scenario, plausible enough, of a wised-up gourmet who might take the square black bottle to a dinner party instead of a bottle of wine, delighting the party with this enigmatic and original present. Full Moon also happens to be tailor-made for China (though it pre-dates the company’s interest in that market), where as Ana María points out, gift-giving is huge and the full moon is an important national fiesta when family gatherings are common and wishes made with conviction are believed to come true.
All of this may sound like pure marketing blarney, but there is more to Full Moon than a name, a pretty bottle and a shameless attempt to cosy up with the Chinese. In fact the olives for this oil are gathered in the week of the full moon in October – not necessarily at night, but at a time of the month when the moon is at its zenith. The result, claims Ana María, is an extra virgin oil whose fruity intensity is even more pronounced than that of the company’s standard, non-lunar line. Ana María is quick to point out that the moon’s influence on the cycles of the natural world is both widely documented and broadly accepted in traditional societies, from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Even today, Spanish rural processes like winemaking and pig slaughter (la matanza) are commonly guided by the lunar phases of waxing and waning. If the full moon makes the sap moves faster around the olive tree, might that not have an effect on the flavour of the finished oil? Quite apart from the appeal of the notion as a marketing tool, the Sanchez family genuinely believes that it might.
When all’s said and done, however, what really matters is the quality of the product. Here, too, the company has done its homework. Across its range of oils, the overriding impression is of extraordinary freshness, a certain smoothness – there is no pepperiness or bitterness in these oils, unlike many other extremeño and andaluz examples – and a predominance of fruit, including subtle flavours of almond, apple, tomato and green banana. Acidity is astonishingly low at around 0.08% - a figure which, says Ana María, even the experts cannot quite explain - and the peroxide level, indicating the oil’s degree of oxidation, comes in at a very low 3 or 4 (an index of 20 is regarded as acceptable).
Which happens to be just the way the Sanchezs like it. A central plank of their philosophy as oil-makers is total control of the process. It wouldn’t do to be reliant on someone else’s oil-mill, like the vast majority of Extremadura’s olive farmers; the company therefore has its own state-of-the-art almazara, avoiding queues and delays. Both the condition, and the speed, with which this delicate fruit arrives at the almazara are of crucial importance. The olives are picked early, which makes for lower yields but plays up the fruit aromas and avoids the spicy and bitter notes that come later in the season. (Cornicabra grown in the Montes de Toledo, for example, is often picked in January - three months after those at the Finca La Laguna.) Only those picked from the tree are used – never those that have fallen or otherwise come into contact with the ground. Arbequina as a variety is notoriously unstable, the oil often going into a steep decline even after six months. If Pago Baldío de San Carlos remains as fresh as a daisy more than a year after it was made, I can’t help wondering whether the Sanchezs’ obsession with hygiene might have something to do with it.
Time for speeches
Meanwhile in the tobacco drying shed, the extremeño wine flowed freely and the speeches began: first Don Vicente Sánchez, the paterfamilias, who spoke of the moon and how it dominates the natural world, the meaning of the moon in China, Full Moon and its importance to a family (his own) that has been farming since the year 1760. Then came the mayor of Majadas de Tiétar, permanently amazed at the presence of his tiny extremeño village in the upper echelons of world gastronomy, and the Commercial Councillor of the Chinese embassy in Spain, who revealed a series of heartening statistics: that Spanish exports to China are growing by 50 per cent year on year, and that Spain leads the way in the fast-growing Chinese market for olive oil.
The official business over, the guests trooped out into the olive groves, where the full moon shone with an eerie bluish light. Now was the moment chosen for the official inauguration of this year’s harvest, and a symbolic picking of the first olives destined for the Full Moon oil. The guest-workers busied ourselves as best we could, stripping the branches of the hard, shiny, jade-green fruit, which rattled into the buckets around our waists.
Beside me a Chinese woman was working hard, her face, wreathed in a smile of satisfaction, seeming to glow under the moonlight. If ever there were an image of the extent of globalisation in our time, this was surely it. Under the full moon of October, I made a wish that was more like a fantasy: within five years Extremadura becomes a household name in China, its superb olive oil on the tables at gourmet restaurants across the country. And who knows? The way things are going, it’s a wish that might very well come true.
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.