Jaén: Foodie Guide Tour to an Olive Oil Paradise
New generations of entrepreneurs are making olive oil cultivation in Jaén, Andalusia, an attractive reality, and have set out to take the maximum advantage of their heritage and the richness of their different olive varieties, of which Picual is of course is the star.
Text: Pacho G. Castilla/Club de Gourmets Magazine
To contemplate the city and the province of Jaén, all you need to do is pause. Because this land of olive growers should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Only this way can you understand the aromas that accompany its olive trees and really uncover what lies beneath its stones.
Jaén is on that list of minor treasures that –for some inadmissible reason– was at some time concealed from us. For many, this land is in the middle of nowhere. It is a place of passage, certainly, where few people stop, and if they do so it is only for an instant to gather their strength and continue on their way.
The memory of past times still lives on thanks to its more than 550 archaeological sites, and the greatest concentration of castles on the whole continent. And of course, in its olive groves. This land certainly has no intention of being a “slave” –as another poet, Miguel Hernández, would say– to its olive trees, but the history of Jaén, its present and its future are inevitably linked to this species that covers almost half the landscape and produces 20% of the world’s olive oil.
Proud olive growers
New generations of entrepreneurs are making olive oil cultivation an attractive reality, and have set out to take the maximum advantage of their heritage and the richness of their different olive varieties (of which picual is of course is the star) and of others that they want to make their own (the Italian frantoio or the Greek koroneiki). One example is the initiative by two young entrepreneurs from Jaén, Andrés García and Alberto Monedero, who joined the San Juan cooperative to launch Supremo, one of the most successful extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) in recent times, as well as being the first to explore one of the native varieties, cornezuelo, previously used only for table olives.
Or the project by Beatriz Castilla to reinvent her family estate of Las Manillas, in Arquillos, where she prepares olive oil, jams, herb teas and even sells olive seeds, a wonderful discovery.
The EVOO route
Olive oil is a source of wealth and a sign of identity in this land that –gastronomically speaking– has had to make its own way in the world, particularly due to its climate, with its extremes of heat and cold which make a flourishing market garden industry impossible. And it may seem like its cuisine starts out with a disadvantage, but the cooks in these lands have always known how to fight against the elements. One of them is the chef Juan Carlos Trujillo in Canela en Rama, in Linares.
He readily admits what has most influenced his dishes –prepared with products from the traditional pig slaughter such as his tartare, or from game– are the hearty soups and stews prepared by his grandmother, to which he has given, thanks to his dressings, that Arab touch that is so widespread in Andalusia. In this town in Jaén, famous for its abundant and free tapas, and in Baeza, where he has just opened another eatery, Trujillo's cuisine has succeeded in making people see that the tapas culture can be taken to the heights.
Montse de la Torre is on a similar mission in Úbeda. In her Cantina La Estación, which she runs with her husband, the sommelier José Antonio Cristofani, all the elements recall the culture of the land. But this would make no sense if it did not have that touch of sophistication evidenced throughout the whole of her vibrant but laborious work. Here it's not only the tapas that will captivate you: you’ll find everything from a selection of EVOOs, through to the typical bread roll known as "ochío" served with ground red pepper, and other breads prepared in the traditional way, her refined version of the local dish of "andrajos" and her trout caught in the Agusamulas river that is given the finishing touches at the table to guarantee the spectacle of the senses is complete.
But this gastronomic renaissance could not be understood without Pedro Sánchez. In Casa Antonio, in the city of Jaén, he practices a cuisine that simply envelops the product, steering clear of –or perhaps refining– those strong intense flavors enjoyed by people in this area. “We have a taste for bitter things and that's the fault of the olive”, says the chef, who makes use of many of the secrets of this land: the best black puddings in Spain, cherries, green asparagus, and the tradition of preparing convent sweets (Las Bernardas).
The route finishes in Bailén, the place of passage par excellence, where the roads converge and become one. There, another disciple, precisely of Pedro Sánchez, succeeded in making a name for himself in one of the latest Madrid Fusión editions as the “wunderkind of the kitchen”, although in his birthplace he is still known by some as “that lad who cooks up those strange things”. In his tasting menu, Jesús Moral insists on “reclaiming our heritage”: partridge pâté, "cuarrécano" (a typical pumpkin from Jaén), stewed potatoes with rabbit, "galianos", the dessert known as "huevos mole"… All this, of course, prepared with a vibrant delicacy and an intuition that appears to come from another world. His idea, curiously, coexists alongside his parents' cooking in the same restaurant. So when the older generation is at the helm in the kitchen in Taberna Casa Miguel, the "flamenquines" and fried breadcrumbs ("migas") satisfy anyone who chooses to take no more than a cursory look at the new cuisine of Jaén, which now only needs a Michelin star for this to become the new Asturias, as Juan Carlos Trujillo would say. Only then will we discover that Jaén is on the sea too, but… the sea of olives.
Article originally published on Club de Gourmets Magazine