More than an organic olive oil
Cortijo de Suerte Alta, located outside the village of Albendín, Córdoba. Photo by: ©Cortijo de Suerte Alta
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
Publication Date: 10 Oct 2011
Cortijo de Suerte Alta, in Baena, is hardly the only organic olive oil producer in Andalusia. But Manuel Heredia, ther cortijo’s owner, takes the concept much further than most. Paul Richardson visits the estate.
Driving out of Córdoba into the gentle hills around the east of the city, the countryside has a pixellated look, tiny spots of grey-green blurring into one to give a texture as soft as felt. Where the immensity of the olive-growing industry in Cordoba’s neighbouring province, Jaén, can make for a dull and relentless landscape, here there are pines, vines, and figs to break the monotony. In addition, a new kind of crop is beginning to cover the hillsides hereabouts: thousands of solar panels in glinting, futuristic rectangles.
Cortijo de Suerte Alta – the name means literally ‘high luck’ – lies outside the village of Albendín, at the edge of a fertile valley watered by the river Guadajoz. The estate is the property of Manuel Heredia, marquess of Prado, whose grandfather planted the first of the olive trees at the Cortijo back in 1924. In those days most of the large estates around Baena were planted not with olives, but with cereals and cotton, or left as holm-oak dehesa for livestock and hunting.
Manuel, the marquess, is a thoroughly modern aristocrat. Taking over the Cortijo from his father twenty-five years ago was the beginning of a learning-curve that has seen him invest increasing amounts of time, money, effort and professional acumen on the estate and its products. An architect by profession, he is responsible not only for the design of Suerte Alta’s attractive label (featuring an interlocking quartet of Hs in which, by an effect of optical illusion, are hidden two P’s, for Prado, and two olive trees) and its original and eye-catching bottles, but also for one of the most astonishing almazaras (olive oil mills) to be seen anywhere in the world.
On the day of my visit Manuel is away in Washington at the Fancy Food fair, leaving me in the capable hands of his lieutenant Paco Bujarance and Paco’s wife Toñi, the couple responsible for the day-to-day running of the estate. The marquess attends all the important foreign fairs, from Biofach in Germany to SIAL in France, Alimentaria in Spain and Fancy Food in the USA. He realised at an early stage, he tells me when we speak later, that the export market would be crucial for an organic olive oil whose impeccable quality is unlikely to be valued as highly at home as it is abroad.
The result of this realisation is that around 80% of Cortijo Suerte Alta’s total production is destined for such foreign markets as the US and Canada, various countries of the European Union (including the UK, where he reveals that he has just clinched a major deal), Switzerland, and the Ukraine. As for developing markets, he recently had his first order from Brazil. He has two or three clients in Japan, where, he says, ‘the thing is going very well’. A small shipment heads for Vietnam every month, and India is also a market that ‘could be very interesting’ for the brand.
Suerte Alta is a classic Andalusian cortijo, a big country house surrounded by farmland, lovely in its whitewashed plainness. If the daily life of the cortijo turns around the dwelling house, home of the marquess when not busy at his office in Madrid, its economic functioning revolves around the land and that which is cultivated on it. The estate covers around 2000 hectares, of which almost all is now given over to olive trees (some 30,000 of them) of the varieties Picual, Picuda and Hojiblanca.
It is early morning on this high-summer day and the air is still cool. Before the heat kicks in (daytime temperatures around Córdoba in the month of July can easily reach 40 degrees centigrade) Paco and Toñi take me in the Cortijo’s old landrover on a tour of the olive groves. As we drive among the trees, white dust billowing behind the car, Paco points out the aspects of the Cortijo’s cultivation process that go to make this oil special: most notably the straggly grass between the rows, an unusual sight in the olive groves of Andalusia, and the irrigation hoses popping up around the trunk of each tree.
Cortijo de Suerte Alta is an organic oil and has been so since 1996. No chemicals are used in the olive grove; harmful insects like the olive fly are trapped in a mixture of vinegar and water. The land is not deep-ploughed, but given a surface going-over with the tractor and strimmed around the base of each tree. Prunings and leaves are shredded and used as mulch. The trees are drip-irrigated with the water from a nearby reservoir: Paco explains that this is because, if farming organically means a loss of 30% yield, doing the same without irrigation increases this figure to 50%. In addition to the Cortijo’s impeccable organic credentials, absolute traceability is at the heart of the enterprise. Paco points to a tree at random and says ‘I can tell you which tank the oil made from this tree’s olives ended up in.’
As if in confirmation of the fine ecological health of the estate, I see rabbits, hares and partridges darting among the trees. There are caper bushes everywhere, their berries ripe for picking, and the last of the season’s wildflowers. In many years of visits to olive groves in southern Spain I have never seen such biodiversity.
Returning to the Cortijo, I am ushered into the tasting room, a chic new space designed by the marquess’s wife, the interior decorator Miriam de Lizieres. On the walls are some of the testaments to the notable quality of the Cortijo’s oil, including framed certificates of awards at olive oil events in Germany, Italy, Spain and the US – most recently, Silver Medals at both the annual Baena PDO awards and this year’s Los Angeles County Fair. Suerte Alta has also had an entry in Marco Oreggia’s prestigious Flos Olei guide for the last three years. In a new initiative for the Cortijo, groups are welcomed for educational tours around the estate culminating in a demonstration and tasting of its oils.
Next door to the tasting room is the Cortijo’s small laboratory, where Toñi offers me samples of the farm’s two oils: a single-variety Picual, and a ‘coupage’ or blend of the estate’s three varieties containing roughly a third of each. The Picual is harvested relatively early, in November, for a greenish oil with fruit aromas reminiscent of lemon, fig and tomato. It is piquant and faintly bitter, but less so, it seems to me, than is normal in the Picuals of Jaén province. As for the blend, the combination of the three varieties makes for a deliciously balanced oil. There is grassiness from the Hojiblanca, piquancy from the Picual, and a sweetness and nuttiness from the much underrated Picuda – the variety which, despite being relatively low-yielding and tricky to handle (at first the olives are hard to dislodge from the boughs, but then fall to the ground in one fell swoop), characterises the estate’s production more than any other.
In a fiercely competitive marketplace, an extra virgin olive oil needs to be truly remarkable to make the running. Suerte Alta qualifies in three main ways: it is genuinely and absolutely organic; it is produced on a private estate with its own almazara; and it belongs to the Baena Designation of Origin, a small DO which has become synonymous with quality, partly thanks to the pioneering work of Francisco Núñez de Prado. (Almost everyone you come across in Baena has a good word to say for Núñez de Prado, who began preaching the virtues of Spanish extra virgin at a time, the late 1980s, when such an idea seemed wildly original.) Then there is the presentation – an unusual, square-sided bottle, and a label design that is elegantly pared-down without being overtly ‘designed’ – and Suerte Alta’s small but perfectly-formed ‘range’, consisting of just two items, but no less covetable for that.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this olive oil, however, is the place where it’s made. In the first years after going organic in 1996, the estate sold its olives to Núñez de Prado. Then Manuel the marquess had another realisation: in order to express the peerless quality of his organic crop, the oil would have to be produced in situ. The almazara, designed by himself, was completed in 2006.
To describe this building as ‘state-of-the-art’ doesn’t quite go far enough. Powered entirely by solar panels, it employs sophisticated ventilation systems to cool the interior, maintaining a year round temperature of between 19C and 24C without the need for air conditioning or heating. (The 58cm thick wall of clay breeze-blocks certainly helps.) The boiler is fired with olive stones. Next year the marquess plans to install a composting plant for the final by-products of olive oil, known as alpechines, thus closing the circle of organic production completely.
It is now mid-morning, and the heat is rising. Paco and Toñi usher me into the mill, where the interior is pleasantly cool as well as astonishingly, almost uncannily clean. The glint of stainless steel is everywhere, covering the walls and ceiling as well as the high-tech Pieralisi machinery. The impression is of absolute pulchritude, efficiency, and hygiene combined with a quest for quality that is borderline obsessive, just two examples being the refrigeration rooms for the olives (reducing oxidation and deterioration, minimal anyway thanks to the Cortijo’s 24-hours-from- tree-to-mill policy) and the eight successive filters used to remove even the tiniest particle of extraneous matter.
At the heart of the almazara is an interior space lined with vast steel tanks, its walls and ceiling creating the effect of a gigantic hall of mirrors. At the centre of this echoing, silvery space - I can’t help thinking Stanley Kubrick would have loved it - stands a round table in burnished metal surrounded with chairs. On the table – the stars of the show – proudly stand two bottles of the estate’s olive oil.
The events of my visit to Suerte Alta, from the wildlife sightings out in the countryside to this fabulously futuristic setting, have stuck in my mind as a symbol of the duality inherent in the products of the Cortijo. Outside, nature in its raw state; inside, the highest of high-tech values: it’s a powerful combination. And with a bit of ‘high luck’, it looks like being a mightily successful one.
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.