I visited Begijar near Jaen in Spain during a road trip around Andalucia. Begijar is world famous for its olive oil production and I came here to taste the best quality oils at the San Francisco Oil Press, a family owned workshop and living museum, leading the way in the olive oil tourism in Andalucia. Here, the Jimenez family produces premium quality products, all of which you can purchase in store on site.
Luis, the commercial director of Oleicola San Francisco gave a tour of the plant and explained how everything functions and told me about the history of this region. Begijar, in the province of Jaen is surrounded by a sea of olive trees – the greater region produces half the world’s olive oil output!
There are about 2,000 varieties of olives in the region, each producing a different taste, fragrance and texture.
Read: This post is part of a series about my four day holiday in Andalucia
The Oleicola San Francisco also specializes in making olive oil, in particular from premium quality early harvest olives. They also offer specialized tours for tourists, welcoming almost 10,000 visitors in 2017.
A ticket for an adult costs €6 but if you come in a group of 20+ adults the ticket will only cost €3.
Tips Before You Go On A Tour
- Expect to learn a lot – there is more to olives than you might think!
- Don’t be squeamish – just taste the oil, it’s super nice!
- Help harvest some olives if you have a full day in Begijar
- Bring comfortable shoes to walk around the plant
First of all, Luis told us that the Oleicola San Francisco is still a functioning factory but they also have some old equipment on show. So what you are going to see are the real technologies and machines that used to be used and some that are still in use now. By the end of the tour you are going to completely understand the differences between how they used to make olive oil and how they make it nowadays.
The Old Process
In the past, olive oil manufacturers used special nets (you can see them on the video) to press the olive oil from a paste of olives. However, it was a very time-consuming and dirty process. It was also less efficient and the quality of the product was not as high as those produced today. As the process took a long time the olive oil could start to ferment in the tanks, further reducing its quality. You will also see a documentary from the 1960s explaining how they made the olive oil back then.
The Modern Process
Today, the Oleicola San Francisco can produce olive oil from harvest to bottling in a matter of hours thanks to very modern technology used on site. A quick comparison: in 1952 there were about 30 million trees in the Andalucia region and the largest olive oil plant in Spain processed about 7 tonnes of olives per hour. Today, there are 66 million trees in the region and the Oleicola San Francisco, with its single machine processes 6 tonnes per hour and they are far from the biggest!
Also, back in the day most oil was in the “Lampante” class, which was a low quality oil. Today, they can make extra virgin, virgin and lampante, all of which are very different in taste, texture and quality. For example, the lampante today is for biodiesel or for further refining to make cooking olive oil.
How to Make Olive Oil
First, they deliver the olives from the fields in large trucks and put them through a system of separation and cleaning. Once the olives are clean, they will be turned into a pulp and pressed through a modern machine separating out the water from the oil. The new machine was made in Italy using a centrifuge system to separate the oil from the unwanted sediment in the liquid.
Filtration, another important step in the process is achieved in a super short period of time using a modern filtration machine. Filtration separates water out of the oil, making it possible to preserve the taste of the freshly pressed olives in the bottle for a long time to come.
Olive Oil Tasting on Site
The olive oil tasting is the best part of the production process! I used to think that all olive oils were the same, but now I know how wrong I was!
First of all, after pouring out the oil into a cup you need to swerve it around in your hand to let the tastes and smells mix. Luis says that this is to wake up the smells in the oil.
Once the oil is nicely warm, stick your nose in the glass take a big deep breath and then tell what you think. For me it smelled like fresh tomato, when you crush the leaves of the tomato plant it smells a little bit like that. My grandparents used to grow tomatoes and that is exactly how it smelled like in the glass house. When you went in to pick the tomatoes that sort of similar smell was inside.
Then there was the early harvest green pressed olive oil which smelled a bit like freshly cut grass in the garden after a bit of rain. There was a girl in my street and her father always cut the grass in the morning when you had a bit of dew on the grass and that was the same sort of smell.
Tasting With Bread
My favourite was the taste test with the bread – it tasted super nice, nothing like the olive oil from the supermarket! In all honesty, if you have never tasted this kind of olive oil you have not lived!