Castillo de Canena
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This company sees promoting biodiversity as the key innovation to create the highest quality oils.
The Castillo de Canena company was formally founded in 2014 by siblings Francisco and Rosa Vaño, with a goal of producing high quality extra virgin olive oil. The Vaños can trace the history of olive production in their family groves back to 1780. Their history serves as both an inspiration and a challenge: while olive oil production is an ancient art, living with this history helped them realize the need for innovation. With careful planning and a commitment to be leaders in the world of quality olive oil, the brother and sister team revitalized the family business. The company now exports their oils to over 50 countries, and their success can be attributed not only to business acumen, but also using science to constantly improve their products. The Vaños tell us that, "beyond running a business, we are collaborating with the environment and the planet. This is key for us." Perhaps the most important lesson discerned from their research was that the health of their land directly reflects the quality of their oils.
"For 3000 years, olive oil has played a leading role in our culture and economy, with Jaén seated at the very center."
The company takes its name from the family castle in the hillside above the township of Canena, in Spain’s Jaen province in the region of Andalusia. The township of Canena is located in the rolling hills of the Guadalquivir River Valley, near the World Heritage cities Úbeda and Baeza. The town of Canena was built around the castle, today one of the most important castles in Andalusia. Originally a fortress built by Arabs in the 13th century on the site of a Roman settlement, both the castle and town were purchased by Francisco de los Cobos in 1538 from Alonso de Baeza. A great patron of the region, de los Cobos restored the castle and transformed it into a Renaissance palace. De los Cobos served as the Secretary of State to King Charles I of Spain, also known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the Emperor is known to have lodged in the Castle. Declared a National Monument in 1931, the castle is now owned privately by the Vaño family. They later restored and preserved the castle, and naturally borrowed the name for the olive oils that represent their family, home and region.
As caretakers of a castle that has endured the ages, the Vaños have deep familiarity with the many changes these lands have felt and witnessed. Yet even the solid structure of the castle, which has stood for centuries, has needed restoration on multiple occasions. The Vaños recognized that for their company to endure - and thrive - they needed to revitalize their land and restore its biodiversity. They began the process with a massive reforestation project, growing thousands of trees from acorns. They were not seeking instant changes, but tiny improvements that come day by day, and year after year. Tasting the oil helps one understand how the flora and fauna on the farm work together to offer subtle nuances that make the oils more exquisite and alive.
"Biodiversity is our guiding principle."
While biodiversity is the primary pillar of their innovative efforts to improve their land and their oils, Castillo de Canena has also forged partnerships with researchers and conservation groups to push the science forward - not only for their products, but also for the olive industry itself. Over the last decade their group has worked on research projects alongside regional universities like the Universidad de Córdoba and Universidad de Granada, agriculture institutes like IFAPA Jaén, IFAPA Córdoba and CDTI Spain, and NGOs like Fundación Caja Rural and SEO Birdlife. Through these research projects, the team at Castillo de Canena can now better trace their carbon footprint, improve their understanding of olive varieties and other organic crops, and help control fungus and disease. By committing to run their business in balance with nature and make ethically responsible choices, they have improved the livability of their area, returned native species to their land, and in the process helped their trees to make the best, most exquisite olive fruit possible.
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The Vaño Family
The Vaño Family
Before formally starting their company, siblings Rosa and Francisco Vaño worked for years in the corporate world. Inspired by their family history, they decided to return home and leave the boardrooms behind. This was a momentous decision. Rosa had built a career as a Marketing Manager, working for Coca Cola, Universal and Paramount. While working for Santander Bank, Francisco had spent many years living abroad in Panama and Italy, but he bid farewell to the world of international banking and returned home to Spain. Together they left their comfort zones behind and formed a new vision for the family: a business focused on producing high quality extra virgin olive oil through a partnership of innovation and environmentalism. The Vaño siblings and their Castillo de Canena Group continue to push sustainability efforts across every sector of their business. They understand that respect for the environment is an ethical issue, and they believe that every organization should adhere to basic values that promote responsible actions toward their community and society as a whole. The group has declared their intention to help the United Nations achieve its Sustainable Development Goals, a global compact promoting corporate sustainability projects across the world. They have also pledged to follow the 10 Principles of UN Global Compact, which focus on human, labor, and environmental rights. These principles guide much of the group's decision-making, and help form the foundation of their strategy, culture, and daily activities as a business.
Every production year is different, and so for Castillo de Canena, each year presents different challenges. One consistent challenge is dealing with the ever-changing climate conditions, which include deadly pathogens, intense heat, and the lack of water endemic to Jaén. The worst harvest in recent history came in 2012, when extreme temperatures in May devastated the olive blossoms. To help avoid disaster in the future, Castillo de Canena now has 8 different meteorological stations spread across the estate to help monitor wind, temperature, and water conditions in both the soil and trees. Their scientific team regularly surveys individual plots of land, measuring more than 20 performance indicators, to help gauge the strength of the trees and their fruit. They also deploy drones to help monitor overall grove conditions.
The company produces on average 120,000 liters of olive oil annually, primarily from Picual and Arbequina olives, with approximately 50,000 liters of oil from these varieties produced each year. With the focus on quality over quantity, the team continues to research and introduce the best methods to reduce the temperatures of the olives when picked, improve transportation to the mill, and increase efficiency of their cold extraction processes. They strive to remain at the forefront of technology and production innovations. These efforts include development of new product lines, including their Smoked Arbequina, made using their in-house smoking system, their line of Biodynamic EVOOs, their World Collection that features oils infused with spices from across the globe, and their unique Phytoplankton infused oil.
The Land & Trees
The Land & Trees
Cradled by the Guadalquivir River valley, and sheltered by the Cazorla and Mágina mountain ranges, the olive groves of Castillo de Canena enjoy some of the most privileged lands in all of Jaen, the Spanish province that produces more olives than any other in the world. It is a dry land, with a clay-loam soil that contains a high percentage of limestone. Though the trees are protected through controlled irrigation, they remain under great hydric stress. It is this stress that helps create some of the world's highest quality extra virgin olive oils. For much of the last century, the lands on the estate were mostly meadows with rolling hills used for cereal production. Rosa and Francisco's father converted much of the land to olive trees in the 1980s, and at the same time added an advanced system for underground irrigation. The oldest olive trees on the estate are Picual, which date to the mid-1800s. Today the Vaño family manages over 280,000 olive trees across 1500 hectares of land. About 60% of the trees are of the Picual variety, another 30% are Arbequina, with Royal variety olive trees making up the remaining 10%. They also maintain a plot of land saved exclusively for varieties from around the world. This experimental plot is used by their research team, as well as in regional partnerships, such as with Spain's IFAPA Agriculture Institute. The information helps them better understand the health of their groves and trees, and ultimately, when and where to begin the harvest each year.
When Rosa and Francisco were children, the harvest began in December. They have memories of the Christmas holidays when hundreds of local workers descended upon the property with long sticks used for hand harvesting. The company focuses now on green early harvest olives, so the hard labor begins in mid-October, with workers arriving from from local villages like Baeza, Ubeda, Torreperogil, and Jódar. As many have worked with the Vaño family for decades, the harvest season feels like a family reunion filled with great enthusiasm and hopeful dreams. The harvest itself is never easy, as each variety poses its own challenge. The Royal olive, native to the Cazorla Mountains, perhaps makes life the most difficult, as it produces delicate fruit that require special care and a gentle touch. This variety also has quite a low oil yield, which led to its steep decline over the last 100 years, almost to extinction. Castillo de Canena rescued their Royal trees from a small enclave in the mountains and planted them on their estate. For harvest they select olives tree by tree, and pick them with an inverted umbrella vibrator to protect the fruit from damage.
Over the last 5 years Castillo de Canena have doubled their production capacity, greatly reducing the time between harvest and extraction. Packed loosely in small containers, the olives reach the mill in under three hours and then undergo the cold extraction process. Castillo de Canena crush their olives using hammermills, with the machines set to a slow speed to keep the temperatures low. The malaxation also maintains a cold temperature, with no water ever added to the process. A dual phase centrifuge separates the oil, then it is filtered with cellulose plates before the pristine oil enters the stainless steel storage tanks. Nitrogen gets piped in to remove any oxygen in the containers. Bottling occurs on demand, with nitrogen also introduced into the bottles for ideal preservation.
With their commitment to ethically responsible agriculture, sustainability and biodiversity have become two of the cornerstones of Castillo de Canena's business philosophy. They have taken great strides to reduce the company's carbon footprint, and have resolved to reduce emissions with every passing year. The estate has a photovoltaic facility that powers the entirety of their irrigation network. Each grove features drip fertigation (irrigation + fertilization) systems that are Integrated Production certified. The grounds also feature drought stress control points to help preserve water runoff. Some of the pomace left over from production is sold to companies that produce pomace olive oil, while the rest is used to produce compost for the biodynamic plots. Pruning remnants get recycled into biomass compost. Castillo de Canena also has an animal farm with bees, chickens, horses, and over 500 sheep living on the estate. The sheep can often be found roaming the groves, where they help control the vegetation between the trees. Of course the livestock manure also adds to the great compost yield of the farm.
To support a philosophy of biodynamic agriculture, in 2012 the team at Castillo de Canena began reforesting parts of the farm with tree species native to Iberia. More recently they began to focus on trees native to the estate with the goal to repopulate using truly indigenous genetic material. They collected over 10,000 acorns from 4 robust 300 year old Holm oaks. As these new trees grow, they will provide shelter for birds and mammals, helping return biodiversity to lands that had been lost due to monoculture agriculture practiced for decades in Jaén. In addition to the native oaks, the group has also repopulated the estate with walnut trees, cypresses, and aromatic plants.
Another effort made to promote biodiversity was the addition of bio-islands to the reservoirs used for irrigation. These floating structures create an artificial wetland for aquatic plants that help remove impurities from the water. The bio-islands also provide nesting for birds and shelter for a variety of fish introduced to the system. Working with the organization SEO BirdLife on their “Proyecto Olivares Vivos” (Alive Olive Groves project), the team has discovered more than 50 different bird species that now regularly visit the estate. They have even undertaken efforts to reintroduce fireflies to their groves, after the significant use of pesticides in the area had devastated the population of these magical insects. So far they have had success, with "these little luminescent beings running through our olive groves again like fascinating living candles."
The Castle of Canena was declared a National Monument in 1931 and later restored and preserved by the Vaño family, who remain its caretakers. The Castle welcomes visitors all year on Mondays from 4pm to 7pm.
The Castillo de Canena estate and mill do not offer formal agroturismo, however they do occasionally receive friends, customers, distributors, media and other people in the sector. Interested parties can schedule a visit by contacting: firstname.lastname@example.org
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