Olive oil is a fundamental component of the essence of Portuguese food. This golden liquid has accompanied Portugal throughout its history and is present in essentially all meals. In Portugal, you can’t cook or eat a meal without oil – it’s not natural. The Portuguese are privileged to be able to use and abuse the quality of their oil.
In this article, we will explore the production and the importance of olive oil in Portugal as well as the characteristics of Portuguese olive oil. We also explain the different types of olive oil and their DOP classification (protected designation of origin). We want to help you choose the best olive oils in Portugal.
Portuguese Olive Oil
Olive oil comes from the extraction of oil from the olive, the fruit of the olive tree. The olive tree is a very resistant tree, which can live hundreds or thousands of years. The olive tree is typical of the Mediterranean region, enjoys a lot of sun and a dry climate. The Mediterranean region includes countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Croatia.
Currently, Portugal (data from 2020) is the ninth-largest producer of olive oil in the world, being nowadays more than self-sufficient – production exceeds 150% of consumption. Although production has been more intensive in the last decade, it dates back to the Bronze Age, with evidence of the first regulation of the craft of the mill, in 1392.
The area with the highest olive oil production in Portugal is the Alentejo, producing 3/4 of Portuguese olive oil. Alentejo has undergone a profound transformation in terms of olive oil production – in less than 20 years it went from 8 534 tonnes in 1999 to a production of 97 004 tonnes in 2017. This transformation was due to the modernization of olive groves, with better use of space, implantation of monocultures, and the construction of the Alqueva dam also helped in the irrigation of olive groves.
Olive Oil Production in Portugal
The olive tree is a tree that thrives in hot and dry climates, existing in abundance in the Alentejo and Northeast Portugal. The cultivation of the olive tree aims to obtain table olives and/or to produce olive oil.
The harvesting of the olives begins when it starts to turn purple, as it is when the olive reaches the maximum amount of fat. These more mature olives produce an oil with a straw yellow color and a mild flavor. It is also possible to produce olive oil with less ripe olives and greener, these will give rise to a greenish colored oil with a more intense and fruity flavor. As a rule, the Portuguese prefer olive oil with more mature olives with a less intense flavor.
The harvesting of the olives is carried out at different times depending on the area of the country and the variety of the olive tree, being different in the Northeast Transmontano and Alentejo. The season extends from October to January / February.
The harvesting of the olives is done with a retailer – a vibrating device, which shakes the olives from the tree. Monofilament nets are placed around the olive trees to collect the falling olives. After falling, the olives are roughly selected and the leaves and branches are removed. Later, they are placed in large bags and taken to the mills.
To produce 250 milliliters of olive oil, between 1300 and 2000 olives are required. The olive oil is produced in the mill where it is extracted from the olive by mechanical methods.
In the mill, the olives are washed, weighed, milled (transformation of the olives into a mass), bated (the mass undergoes a slow and continuous beat with mild heating between 25º to 30º), the oil is extracted (by centrifugation), and then filtered (once or twice). After all this process, the oil is ready for consumption.
We had the opportunity to participate in an olive harvest on a farm in Quinta D’Aveleira in Castelo de Vide in Alentejo do Norte (DOP region) of Mr. Luís Canhoto. Later we saw the transformation and extraction of the oil in a press. It is a tiring but very rewarding experience and we recommend it to everyone who likes olive oil as much as we do. There is nothing more rewarding than consuming a product in which we participate in its production. There are several farms in the Alentejo that allow you to experience the harvesting of the olives.
Olive oil production regions in Portugal
The quality of the oil depends on the production region and the different types of olive trees. As in wines, olive oil is not all the same – each region has its olive groves with different characteristics. The most used olive in Portugal is the variety of “Galician olives” which is also known as “Portuguese olives”.
The regions where most olive oil is produced in Portugal are Alentejo and Trás-os-Montes, but there is also big production in Beira Interior and Ribatejo. These areas of excellence in olive oil production are classified as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which is a quality certification, verifying that these regions as second to none.
The Protected Designation of Origin olive oils in Portugal are:
- Olive oil from Trás-os-Montes DOP: This oil is produced in the so-called “Terra Quente” (hot land) in the district of Bragança. It is the second region that produces the most olive oil in Portugal. The olive oil is produced from the varieties of olive Verdeal Transmontana, Madural, Cobrançosa, and Cordovil. This oil has a pungent, fruity, and sometimes almondy flavor. It has a dark greenish-yellow color.
- Azeite da Beira Interior DOP: is produced in the interior/center of Portugal, mainly in Guarda district. The oil is made from the Galega variety producing a low to very low acidity oil. And it has a slightly greenish-yellow color.
- Azeite do Ribatejo DOP: is produced in the regions of central Portugal, in the district of Santarém. This oil is made from the Galega, Lentisca, Cobrançosa, and others. It is low to very low acid olive oil, with a golden yellow color, sometimes slightly greenish.
- Azeite Moura DOP: is produced in the district of Beja from the Galega, Verdeal, and Cordovil varieties. It is low to very low acidity olive oil, greenish-yellow in color, with a fruity aroma and flavor. This oil after extraction can be a little bitter and spicy.
- Olive oil from Alentejo interior DOP: is produced in the interior regions of Alentejo, in the district of Évora. It is made from the common Galega variety, Cordovil de Serpa, and Cobrançosa. It is a golden yellow or greenish olive oil. With a fruity flavor.
- Azeite do Norte Alentejo PDO: is produced in the regions of Alto Alentejo, Portalegre district. It is made from the Galega olive variety (at least 65%), and the varieties Azeiteira, Blanqueta, Redondil, and Carrasquenha can be tolerated, at a maximum of 5% and Cobrançosa, at a maximum of 10%. It is a low to very low acidity oil, thick, and has a golden yellow color, sometimes slightly greenish. With a fruity flavor.
Types of Olive Oil in Portugal
There are 4 types of olive oil for consumption, virgin olive oils (virgin and extra virgin), refined olive oil, and “olive oil”. Virgin olive oil is the most common and used, it is extracted from olives through mechanical processes that do not modify the properties of the oil. When virgin olive oil has an acidity greater than 2% it is not suitable for consumption so it has to be refined. Refined olive oil is obtained through a refining process of virgin olive oil, that is, the oil is de-acidified through chemical processes. Finally, we have “olive oil”, also widely used and commercialized, which is made up of a mixture of refined and virgin olive oil.
Usually in Portugal we find it for sale for consumption:
- Extra virgin olive oil – acidity less than or equal to 0.8%. It does not present any defect in the flavor or aroma of olive oil. It is ideal for seasoning and eating raw.
- Virgin olive oil- acidity less than or equal to 2%. It may present slight natural defects in flavor and aroma. It is ideal for roasts, soups, stews, or marinades.
- Olive Oil – a combination of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. It is a cheaper oil. It’s ideal for making fries.
How to choose Portuguese Olive Oil
There are dozens of olive oils sold in Portugal, which can get a little confusing when choosing one. Before choosing the olive oil, you must take into account the use you are going to use. Is it to season salads or food, to accompany with bread or to use to cook in stews, roasts or even to fry?
The “extra virgin olive oils” are the ones that have better quality, but are also the most expensive. They are perfect to eat raw as a seasoning. Virgin olive oil is good for cooking, it is also cheaper oil. “Olive oil” is the most accessible of all and it is most suitable for cooking and frying.
But if you want something with a better quality, choose an extra-virgin olive oil.
What distinguishes an olive oil is its flavor and acidity. The acidity of the oil is not related to the taste. It is not because it has a lower acidity that the taste is better, in fact, an oil with very low acidity has a more neutral flavor. The flavor is related to the olive varieties, the maturation time of the olives, and the region where it is produced.
Acidity is an indicator that assesses the quality of olives and the olive oil production process. The lower the acidity, the healthier were the olives that made it. Olive oils with the same degree of acidity can have quite different flavors, milder, or more intense.
The taste of the oil can be fruity, bitter, or spicy. The greenish oils are made with less ripe olives and may have a more bitter and fruity flavor while the more straw yellow oils have a less intense flavor. The color of the oil is not related to its quality, only to the olives used. The region where the oil comes from also influences the flavor, olive oils from Trás-os-Montes may have a stronger flavor.
Bear in mind that the oil deterioration process starts from the moment it is extracted. Therefore, you should not store it for very long periods of time. To preserve an oil, it must be kept in a glass container, preferably dark, and must be in a cool place, without light.
In addition to olive oil being a great condiment giving the food a pleasant taste, it is healthy vegetable fat with a high content of monosaturated fatty acids that help to reduce bad LDL cholesterol and maintain good HDL cholesterol. It is the main fat in the Mediterranean diet.
Best-known olive oil brands in Portugal
The best known olive oil brands in Portugal are Azeite Galo and Azeite Oliveira da Serra. They are both good oils, accessible and consumed by almost all Portuguese families.
In addition to these brands, there are high-quality olive oils that have already received worldwide awards: Herdade do Esporão, Monterosa, Secrets of Côa, Rosmaninho, Porça de Murça, Carm, are some reference oils.
Yet, the olive oil that we truly recommend is the one you’ll find for sale at local producers in the regions of Trás-os-Montes and Alentejo. These producers sell directly from their farm or in small local supermarkets. When traveling through these small towns, watch for signs announcing the olive oil sale (“Vende-se Azeite”). Even if you are not a connoisseur you will notice the difference, and enjoy some really good oil.
We would like to thank Mr. Luís Canhoto for the help and patience. Thank you for allowing us to participate in the olive harvest in his olive grove, the patience he had to teach all the steps and clear all the doubts we had. We also want to thank Eng.ª Sandra do Lagar de São Marcos em S. António das Areias, who showed us the olive oil production process and gave us a guided tour of the mill. Many thanks to all olive oil producers who make it possible for us to have this delicious ingredient on the table.
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