It is days like these that I file in my storehouse of priceless joy.
We drifted through the olive trees, young and not so young, dipping our shoulders into the heat of the late-day sun, our feet labouring across the tilled, dry earth, our shadows moving along the ancient terrace wall as shadows have done for centuries.
They had come at half past six on the dot as asked, in a convoy of little cars and on a tractor of appropriate colours (green and yellow), snaking the mile along the dusty track from their homes to a grove with views to eternity.
The village cooperative members were at ease in familiar company, but with the soft voices of uncertainty as I stepped forward to address them.
Great news is usually the easiest to impart, but I was an Englishman without the buoyancy of a prepared speech, wading into the rip tide of Catalan grammar. Impart it I did, though, adequately it seemed, for smiling couples embraced and pulled their children to them, and ripples of happiness rolled through the grove.
And here they are, the Priorat farming families of Mother’s Garden Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the faces behind the wonderful fresh juice from the wisest of fruits that judges in the 2011 Great Taste Awards described as “absolutely stunning”.
How good to know, how wonderful to be just one of two olive oils on sale in the UK to get 3 Gold Stars in these coveted awards – and how important as we continue to spread the Mother’s Garden olive oil message of freshness, provenance, flavour and goodness.
Ella took a multitude of photographs for you as we raised glasses of gold and toasted the moment, while laughing children ducked and dived and tucked into bread and olive oil. Maggie and I chatted with proud president Manel and many more, unable to gauge the distance travelled since we left England in January 2001.
It was, I reflected as everyone meandered back to their cars and to the steady rhythm of their rural lives, a deliciously gentle, community triumph of cooperation, pride, and ancient wisdom.
When we first walked the boundary of our future home in 2000 and looked at the myriad of Mediterranean challenges, we realised our first learning curve would be an olive harvest. Little did we know, though, how important the fruit would become.
In truth we rapidly became neurotically obsessed with the vines, thinking these would yield a greater harvest, but you live and learn.
Olive oil like wine is at the heart of life here (arbequina olive oil to be precise) and in those first years we grew to love the sharing of November harvests with neighbours, the moment of pressing and bringing home enough fresh juice to last the year; of the gold/green goodness in the pourer that sits in the middle of the kitchen table – gold and green for the colour of the fresh oil can magically change with the light. Friends from England tasted it, saying they could not believe the difference, the beautiful scent and the rich flavour. They wanted it at the heart of their diet too, so a fledgling business that was never planned took wing.
Our county of the Priorat is tiny – 192 square miles compared to Norfolk’s 2000 – with scattered clusters of houses huddled around churches on unforgiving terrain of slate and soil. Lanes snake through the valleys linking the 22 villages and one small town, Falset, all dominated by the Monstant ridge to the north and the Mola and Santa Marina mountains to the south.
It is an undulating tapestry of vines, olives,.almonds, hazels and swathes of forest, and is world-renowned for wine production with two denominations, the DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant.
Private investors have spent countless millions in recent years developing new vineyards and building grand cellars, but the olive groves mostly remain the domain of the small village farmers and their cooperatives; people like Manel and the close knit community of El Masroig with whom we work.
The cooperatives make outstanding wine too. During our decade here we have seen them face up to the modern world and, like Spain generally, begin to counter the marketing dominance of Italy.
There is a way to go, but life is coming back to the villages.
Among Ella’s photographs are some of the young people that run the mill – Carles, Rafel and the team who are striving to put the village and their produce on the international map.
Here the farming has changed little since the cooperative was formed in 1917, with each family owning one or more of the plots that ring the village, while the dramatic, rocky terrain with its narrow terraces means it will undoubtedly stay that way.
Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil, with groves covering an area the size of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and most of Lincolnshire. On the narrow Priorat mountain terraces farmers cultivate the small and hardy arbequina olive trees alongside their almond trees and vines, in contrast to the different beauty and wonder of the rolling estates in other parts of this country, where other important varieties are also grown, notably Picual, Hojiblanca, and Manzanilla.
The majority of villagers here are senior, it has to be said, but some young people are returning to the land with its toil and risk. It is, indeed, arduous, dangerous work through fiery summers and bitter winters. Earlier this month a young man from the village was killed when his tractor rolled, a tragedy that is not uncommon on this extreme landscape.
Beyond our wish to widened appreciation of fresh arbequina olive oil and to support our neighbours, we believe firmly that the world still has a great deal to learn about this ancient food that’s credited continuously with health values, the most recent being a French study into the reduced risk of stroke.
It is better understood that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Is this because, by definition, if you consume a significant amount of olive oil then you are eating a healthier diet in general? Because of the cost of olive oil are all regular consumers participating in studies likely to be able to afford a better diet in general?
If, beyond the wonderful flavour of fresh olive oil, we are going to clearly define the tremendous goodness of simple olive juice then we all need to push for more and more research. That is one of our aims, in tune with spreading the understanding that it is simply a juice, and that knowing when it was pressed is as important as knowing where and with what care.
Meanwhile we offer the story, the faces and the best olive oil, all of which I will be more than happy to talk about when we are back in September to be part of the Speciality Food Fair at Olympia on September 4,5 and 6. If you are a chef or deli/farm shop owner and plan to attend, come and see us on stand 2.