A contemporary taste of Spain’s Moorish past

MANY visitors to the southern Spanish region of Andalusia head straight for the coast, in search of the predictable trilogy of sun, sex and sangria. They may find what they are looking for, but they experience little of the history, architecture, landscape and food that make this one of the most exciting and fascinating parts of Spain.

Andalusia – the name derives from Al Andalus, the Moorish name for the region – has so much more to offer than the predictable tourist fare of the Costa del Sol. Now one of its finest products, olive oil made from trees that are hundreds of years old, is available right here in Somerset.

Balcon del Sur, based in the historic town of Priego de Cordoba, not far from the important provincial capital of Cordoba, with its famous Moorish mosque-cathedral, produces a wide range of oils from groves on the gentle sloping hills where olive trees have been growing for millennia.

Some of the trees which are still producing olives are more than 1,000 years old – the certified oldest tree in the region  is 1,400 years old.

Balcon del Sur’s oldest is at least 1,140 years old. “It needs around five people to hug it,” says Antonio Perena Calvo, who was in Somerset recently, offering tastings of both the regular extra virgin olive oil and the special 500anos EVOO, made from olives harvested from trees that are more than 500 years old.

The “everyday” extra virgin olive oil is a delicious, high quality product, flowery and grassy, the perfect oil for salads.

But 500anos is at an altogether higher level – its aroma as you open the bottle tells you it is special: spicy and fragrant. The taste on the tongue is remarkable, peppery and grassy, fresh, delicate, complex and hinting at its ancient Mediterranean origins. The taste lingers for many minutes, long after most ordinary flavours have vanished.

Part of the secret of this unique oil is the sheer age of the trees – when these trees were young, the Moors had only been in the Iberian peninsula for 150-200 years, neither the Alhambra palace and gardens of Granada nor Cordoba’s great Alcazar fortress had been built, and Spain’s conquests of the New World were still four or five hundred years in the future.

Priego de Cordoba is at the centre of Andalusia’s olive oil producing area, but what makes Balcon del Sur different is that the oils are produced by the traditional methods, which are kinder to the trees and the environment. The oils are more expensive than industrially produced oils but you get what you pay for – the difference between the smell and the taste of these oils makes the modest additional cost worth every penny.

In industrialised olive oil production, says Antonio, there is an “aggressive” harvesting in which the trees (and the fruit) are harshly beaten. “We still use the same traditional method from the past, by hand, without any heavy machinery, preserving the fruit at its optimum quality.”

Aceites Balcón del Sur produces a range of oils under the name Valdesur  – extra virgin, virgin and olive pomace, as well as the premium 500anos, which is available in gift boxes.

You can buy Balcon del Sur oils, including the Valdesur EVOO and 500anos at Kimbers Farm Shop near Wincanton – visit www.kimbersfarmshop.co.uk

For more information about the oils visit www.balcondelsur.es (the information can be see in English and Spanish).