A few months ago, one of our readers shared with me the story of how he had taken over his family’s olive oil operation in Portugal.
Believing that family legacies–business and otherwise–are a key element of the Old Money culture, I asked him to share some information about the business. (And I’ll add that ‘business’ is an inadequate term for the dedication and artisan expertise that goes into making world class olive oil. ‘Passion’ is more accurate.)
He was kind enough to provide the following. Please enjoy…and thank you, Miguel.
A TABLE TRADITION
From my earliest summer holidays I remember the scorching heat, green valleys and rugged hills with olive and fruit trees, the typical landscape of Northern Portugal. In this region my family has produced olive oil for several generations.
My great-grandparents, originally from Porto, moved North in the early 1900s, to start a hotel and restaurant business. In complement, they bought two farms and a country house that, together, made the business and the household almost entirely self-sufficient. Olive orchards took up most of the land.
One of the farms had its own traditional stone mill and after extraction, the olive oil was stored in large terracotta jars. It was produced exclusively for the “house” and when sold, only to friends.
As needed, olive oil was tapped into 5L demijohns, loaded in the Studebaker, and delivered at the restaurant and at home. After my grandfather took over the business, he replaced most of the vineyards around the country house with new olive orchards.
Consumption of olive oil was increasing, both in the restaurant and at home. He also started making “extra virgin” quality only, which was quite uncommon. In fact, so uncommon that it was only sold in pharmacies.
Among the family, I remember that olive oil was, and still is, the cornerstone of every meal. It was poured from 5L demijohns into a silver cruet for table use, and was treated as a noble product.
There was plenty of it, but it was never wasted. We used it either to cook, or as a condiment,sometimes with sautéed vegetables, sometimes with onion and parsley, sometimes with garlic or malagueta pepper, or just by itself. It was also used for deserts, from fruit salads to cakes. And I even enjoyed it at breakfast, on toast with grated dark chocolate.
As my grandfather retired, the business and the farms were sold, but he continued the olive oil production on the orchards surrounding the country house. After he died, things were run jointly in the family for a while, until opinions started to diverge.
In that context, I took over.
It is hard to fully convey what the olive oil production means to me. Part of the appeal is related to memories and family tradition. Family gatherings always involved a meal, and olive oil always had that special place at the table. I still have a few of the, now centenarian, terracotta jars.
There is also the commitment needed for running the production, even if it only implies a few visits a year. My grandfather did this almost religiously until his early 80s. The continuous striving to keep things in the best possible condition is definitely part of the appeal.
Finally, there is the aspect of traditional farming (no chemicals, no irrigation, and manual harvest), which I believe is worth preserving. Olive oil from the property has always been a farm-to-table product, and this still makes sense today. Especially now that most olive oil on the market comes from intensive plantations and/or is blended with oils of questionable provenance.
Altogether, I feel it is my duty to continue this tradition and to prove that it is still possible to produce small-batch, sustainable extra virgin olive oil. Being more than 1,500 km away from the property doesn’t make it easy.
But as long as the reward comes to the table…