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Olive worship in Portugal

Posted by Patricia Borns  August 31, 2011 07:05 AM

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If the green in the Portuguese flag doesn’t stand for olives, it might as well, because olives and olive oil are objects of national passion. This I discovered while wine-tasting at various Alentejo vineyards in the fall shoulder season, when it happened that both the hand- and mechanical olive harvesters were out in force. So I wound up at my first olive oil tasting at Heirderos Passanha, the state-of-the-art press at Quinta de São Vicente estate.

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Before this, my olive oil vocabulary consisted of the words “virgin” and “extra virgin,” or maybe “cold-pressed extra virgin.” Who knew olive oil could be further rated by growing region, texture, color and acidity? For such a small country, Portugal grows some very different olives: for example, small, bitter and black in the coastal Centro region, or plump and green in the Alentejo. Chefs stock oils from each region to recreate the micro-flavors of local recipes.

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Frankly, Alentejo wines took some getting used to for us, whereas Alentejo olive oil was an instant tastebud hit. Before sampling in the Passanha's museum-like tasting room, we walked a few fields and watched the cold-pressing process with a Passanha family member – not the brothers who started the new facility, but a daughter who left off restoring churches in Madeira to help power up the family brand (proving in the process that a fine arts degree is no barrier to succeeding in business).

The Passanhas of Genoa established themselves in Portugal in the 14th century, so making olive oil, albeit with millstones, is for them nothing new. For their 21st Century brand, they chose a blend of two olives -- one from the Portugese Tras-os-Montes region, the other from Catalonia via Palestine. The combination creates something clean and spicy and likeable, without even taking into account the enigmatic bottle, which has won design awards.

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Through wrought iron gates you will notice a massive colonnaded house whose
Roman style jumps out in the angular Alentejo landscape. This is the family’s ancestral home since the 1700s, Quinta de Sao Vicente, and as no one was in residence, we got to stroll in ithe garden of fabulous specimen trees transplanted from a world of travels, and cool our feet in the romantic, Azulejos-tiled swimming pool.

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Portugal is full of olive oil moments like this, but it helps to read Portuguese to find them. The country’s Rota do Azeite (Olive Oil Trail) website is full of knowledge but in the native tongue only for now.

By the way, New Englanders are fortunate to have a Portuguese olive oil source in Fall River markets like Chaves. While the best brands aren’t represented at these markets -- like the country’s wines, Portugal’s olive oils are pressed in relatively small batches that tend to be co-opted for local use -- you will discover even in average brands a distinctive flavor compared with Italian products. And Portuguese olive oils cost less, too. (Chaves is at 9 Columbia Street, 508-679-4410.)

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