Olive capital of the world

April 2008

I took a quick trip to Úbeda (pronounced Oo-bda) courtesy of the local government of the province of Jaén in Andalucia in southern Spain. The purpose of the trip was to see where 20 per cent of the world’s olive oil comes from. You heard right — 70 million olive trees, as far as the eye can see in all directions, the vast majority of them the picual variety with its characteristic tomato vine flavour. But a freeloading journalist cannot live on olive oil alone, as good as a lot of it was, so we ate quite well.

Our generous hosts took us to some fine places to eat and we discovered a few ourselves. But what was so special about this place, besides the olives and the food, was Úbeda itself. With a population of 40,000 (Orange is 37,000), it’s another hidden gem of a Spanish provincial city, this one home to at least three of the finest renaissance buildings in the world. Not to mention some tasty restaurants. A highlight for me was discovering the raf tomato, a tomato eaten when green and crunchy, and grown only for a short time mainly in the south (although, apparently, also in Catalonia) and eaten either cut into cubes and drizzled with local oil (tomato vine flavour, remember) and sprinkled with salt and pepper or, as I had it at Asador de Santiago, sliced with little fluffs of tomato water foam dotted with mashed anchovy — and more olive oil. A rare instance of a good use of foam.

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