Oro del Desierto
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The desert climate influences not only the identity of the olives grown on the estate, but also the identity of the trees’ caretakers, the Alonsos.
Growing foods in the desert seems a near impossibility. Yet the Alonso family of Almeria province in southern Spain has spent the last century farming lands of the Tabernas Desert, famously known as the only desert in Europe. While the desert climate limits the production of their olive trees, the intense landscape contributes to their farm’s organic roots. The results are high-quality and uniquely regional olive oils: aromatic, well-balanced, and truly deserving of the name ‘Desert Gold.’
The Tabernas desert region may be better known for the spaghetti western film productions of Sergio Leone, or more recent productions, like Game of Thrones. Perhaps the region’s fame derives from the massive installation of greenhouses, so large it can be seen from space, that yields 50% of the fruit and vegetables grown yearly in the EU. And it is here, in the heart of Europe's driest area, that lies a secret treasure: Oro del Desierto's olive groves, which thrive in this microclimate of minimal rainfall and over 3,000 hours of sunshine.
"This is the treasure from many generations in the Mediterranean, a product from a fruit born in the sun of a dry land."
The four olive varieties grown on the estate represent the true taste of Spain: the light and fruity Arbequina; the smooth and mildly sweet Lechín; the medium-intense family favorite, Hojiblanca; and the robust and famously high phenolic Picual. While each monocultivar oil deserves and wins awards in its own right, the specially-crafted and multi-award winning Coupage represents the culmination of all the careful work performed at the farm. With the desert conditions testing the trees each year, they also test the Master Miller who is tasked with creating this perfect varietal blend year after year.
The climate influences not only the identity of the trees’ caretakers, but also the identity of the olives grown on the estate. As a result, the desert trees create oils with more intense flavors and levels of polyphenols. The unwavering heat also aids the health of the trees, while stable temperatures throughout the whole growing and ripening period lead to a remarkably consistent product. It is this consistency, alongside the family tradition of organic farming, that produces these exceptional and treasured oils.
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"We think it’s a treasure to be in such an amazing landscape and produce a complex, fruity and fresh olive oil... something real that you can touch, taste and smell, something sturdy that you can offer to your customers to enjoy and that is good for them, for their health is the most satisfactory feeling for us."
Rafael Alonso Aguilera
Rafael Alonso Aguilera
Having achieved success in various businesses involving restaurant and farm properties, Rafael Alonso Aguilera returned to his organic farming roots on a full-time basis in 1999 after inheriting the family estate. The family already had part ownership of an old mill built in the 1920s that belonged to José Alonso, Rafael Alonso’s grandfather, but the mill had been abandoned in the 1970s. Passed down through 7 generations, the lands of the family estate had always been bio-diverse, providing a mix of produce including almonds, grapes, and many old olive trees of the Lechín variety. While emphasizing that “my grandfather’s grandfather’s Lechín olive trees still produce olives,” Rafael breathed new life into the estate by planting young organically-grown olive trees. At a time when organic farming was quite rare, many neighbors may have considered the Alonsos to be out of their mind. Yet they believed using practices that respected the land would ultimately produce the best products in return. The family endured a tremendous amount of hard work to help the new trees succeed, but today count more than 26,000 olive trees on the estate.
At the time of harvest it's not only a family affair, but a local one as well, as all harvest workers come from Tabernas, the nearby village. Yet there remains something special about sharing experiences across generations, “to see the family working hard and together around our heritage from many generations, seeing the young children playing among the trees and learning to love and respect them as our own friends.”
The Alonsos say that tasting true high quality oils is the best way to educate the consumer and help them understand the difference between lesser oils. But this is also the greatest challenge for any respectable olive oil business. “Don’t be afraid if the taste is bitter or spicy/piquant, that’s good news: a product full of natural antioxidants.”
The Land & Trees
The Land & Trees
At various times throughout the year, horses and sheep can be found in the groves, grazing on the weeds sprouting between the olive trees. This simple practice reflects how the Alonsos view their place on the land: to continue the long-standing family traditions of environmentally-friendly farming methods without the use of synthetic fertilizers. The hot summers and cold winters naturally protect trees from pests and disease. The surrounding mountains also protect the groves from both the elements and from the potential intrusion of pesticides used by conventional farming practices. The land is a true oasis in the desert.
The oldest trees are of the Lechin variety and date long before the construction of the original mill, many having lived over 250 years. The Lechín trees’ age and the small, hard olives they produce require the fruit to be hand-picked. In the late 90s the family reinvented the groves by planting thousands of new olive trees, mostly of the Picual & Arbequina variety, all young and organically grown. Picual is a favorite fruit to harvest, as its big olives can fall easily from branches with just a shake.
Maintaining unity with the land, Oro Del Desierto implements many different sustainable farming practices. The compost that helps fertilize the farm consists of mill waste, sheep droppings, and other organic materials sourced from the property. Wild horses run free and eat the edible weeds growing beneath the trees. Solar outposts dot the landscape, and their power feeds not only the mill and restaurant, but also all the water pumps throughout the estate. The water used to irrigate the land traces to a reservoir in the mountains which collects water run-off naturally into a nearby ravine. Furthermore, their own patented drip irrigation system uses 30% less water than older systems. Even the work vehicles operate sustainably; the vehicles run on a biofuel created from filtered olive oil reused from the restaurant kitchen.
A charming estate wholly integrated into the environment, Oro Del Desierto offers a number of options for the olive oil loving tourist. The property has several cottages for visitors and the restaurant, Los Albardinales, also includes an exhibition area housing relics from the old olive oil mill now restored to contain the restaurant space. In addition to olives, a variety of different foods grown or sourced from the farm serve as the source of the restaurant's main ingredients.
Built in the 1960's, the cottages were restored in a manner that respects traditional Andalusian architecture. Their bioclimatic features make each rustic cottage suited to the climate, and like the rest of the farm, the guest amenities all operate using environmentally sustainable practices. To heat both the mill and restaurant, the proprietors burn olive stones left over from oil production. Solar panels installed on the cottage roofs provide the energy for hot water, and the cottages use a modern system of condensation to stay cool in the summer. The natural pool available to guests stays clean through natural biological cycles, and the recycled water irrigates the surrounding gardens.
Through Las Albardinales, guests can book guided tours of the production plant and olive farm. The nearby A-92 highway provides easy access to the airport or Cabo de Gata beach, both within a 30 minute drive.
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