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Essential oils: La Trama

Businesswoman Elena Alcala is converting the south west to the joys of Andalusian olive oil grown in the Spanish sunshine on her family’s farm

Elena Alcala has been appearing across the region’s foodie market scene regularly recently and so – intrigued by a face we hadn’t seen around before – we decided to do a little digging and found out how she brought her family business over from beautiful Andalusia, all for the benefit of our tastebuds, hearts and hangovers.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in the Andalusian province of Cordoba, southern Spain, in a town called Baena, where I grew up surrounded by olive trees and groves as far as the eye can see. Since a very young age, I have been involved in the harvesting of olives and production of olive oil and learning about the different types of pressings.

Over the years, my father has taught my siblings and I everything there is to know about producing top quality olive oil. Having lived in the UK for 16 years, I have realised that the British are not quite as passionate about their olive oil as they are about their wine and I’m keen to change that, so I decided to set up a company to bring my family’s premium olive oil to the UK. In September 2016, La Trama – la trama being the name of the olive oil blossom – was created. Our two main award-winning oils are Orobaena Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Oronovus Extra Virgin Oil. Both are a beautiful pale gold. The flavour is harmonious, sweet almond, with notes of grass, fruit and nuts, very soft with low acidity. They’re perfect for cooking, drizzling and dipping.

How did you come to be in the west country?

I attended UWE Bristol for both my degree in marketing and MA in European business and then had stints in the coffee and wine industries. I fell in love with Bristol (and then a Bristolian) and have never left. I now live in Claverham, North Somerset, with my husband and two wonderful stepchildren who now love dipping bread into olive oil.

I set up the business here because Bristol and Bath are cosmopolitan cities which embrace different cultures and appreciate good quality products. I have also had a great help from the Start and Grow programme at Business West (for more information visit: businesswest.co.uk).

The olive farm in Andalusia dates back to the 13th century

Paint us a picture of the Andalusían groves . . .

My family owns olive groves in different areas of the south of Cordoba, which have been passed from generation to generation.

This part of Spain is well-known for the quality of the olive trees and they are on every hillside as far as the eye can see – interspersed with traditional white-washed villages. My father’s groves date back to the 1200s, when our ancestor from the Basque country (a commander of one of the armies that helped to reconquer Andalusia) was given the land as payment.

My mum’s ancestors were peasants during the Napoleonic wars (1800s) and found a chest full of gold coins which they used to buy land – the mix of land from both sides is what makes up our family grove as it is today.

My father retired from running his own law practice in his 50s, and decided to dedicate his efforts completely to the groves and the olive oil. Today, he is 72 and takes pride in the olive trees and all he has achieved for the family.

Tell us about the making process . . .

The harvest takes place between November and February, which makes Christmas a special time for me when I visit. Once I smell the olive oil, I know it’s really Christmas. When they are ready for picking, the olives are normally black or burgundy (green olives are not a separate type, they are merely less mature) and the best quality olives are the ones that haven’t fallen from the tree yet, so a tractor grabs the olive tree from the trunk and shakes it so the olives fall down into a carefully placed net. The olives that have already fallen are also picked, but are selected for a lower-end olive oil.

The lorries arrive at the factory and offload the olives, which are separated from the leaves and taken away to be ground into a paste in modern steel drum mills for about 20 minutes.

After, the paste is stirred slowly for another 20 to 30 minutes in a container (a process called malaxation), where the microscopic oil drops coalesce into bigger drops, which facilitates the mechanical extraction. The paste is then pressed by centrifugation to separate the water.

The oil produced by only mechanical (not chemical) means, as described above, is called virgin oil. Extra virgin olive oil is virgin olive oil that satisfies specific high chemical and organoleptic criteria (low free acidity, no or very little organoleptic defects).

A higher grade extra virgin olive oil is mostly dependent on favourable weather conditions; a drought during the flowering phase, for example, can result in a lower quality (virgin) oil.

It is worth noting that olive trees produce well every couple of years so greater harvests occur in alternate years (the year in-between is when the tree yields less). However, the quality is still dependent on the weather. Sometimes the produced oil will be filtered to eliminate remaining solid particles that may reduce the shelf-life of the product.

Elena on her horse Fandago

What are the health benefits of olive oil?

The company’s motto is that ‘olive oil is a jewel to your health’ – especially for those with heart conditions. Studies show a reduction of risk of coronary heart disease, and it’s also great for the skin. The Mediterranean diet is famous for its benefits – a 2014 meta-analysis concluded that an elevated consumption of olive oil is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular events and stroke, while monounsaturated fatty acids of mixed animal and plant origin showed no significant effects.

How do you ensure the best possible taste?

There is no alteration to the process. It is all done solely by mechanical means, to allow the taste to be solely of pure olives. No additives or chemicals go in. The best quality olive oil also comes from the best quality trees, a good soil, a warm climate and a great deal of passion.

Are you environmentally friendly?

Definitely! We comply with all the EU environmental laws and the Consejo Regulador of the Designation of Origin Baena (the regulating quality control body and of health and safety). Furthermore, we use every bit of the olive. Even the olive stone which is used in the houses for central heating. This is a very common practice in the area.

And we could sponsor a tree if we wished to?

Oh yes. I am keen for people to feel they have a connection with my home town and the olive oil produced in the region. By sponsoring an olive tree for £35 people can help with sustaining and supporting the olive trees. They also receive two bottles of our premium Oronovus olive oil with the sponsorship certificate and an invitation to visit their tree and the factory.

Are there any good alternative uses for your product?

Other local manufacturers use our olive oil to make soap and creams as it is extremely good for the skin. We sell directly to these manufacturers from our family mill, or almazara, in Baena. A very unusual use of the product is to take a full spoon to cure hangovers (I don’t do this but many people in the south of Spain do), or to flavour ice cream.

How do we get in touch with you and the team at La Trama?

Visit our website, which tells you a bit more about our olive oils, latrama.co.uk. You can order a bottle or even a whole case of 12 bottles directly from us, email: elena@latrama.co.uk, or follow us on Twitter: @TramaLimited.