Touring the World’s Largest Olive Oil Factory in Rural Jaén Province

By Trevor Huxham

Every school district has its favorite field trip spots: Bostonians go to Salem or Plymouth to learn about America’s start; southern Americans visit ranches or plantations to learn about other parts of history and local culture. And this January, toward the end of olive harvest season, I went with students at the school where I work to the world’s largest olive oil factory. Called an almazara in Spanish, the factory we visited was run by the co-op “Nuestra Señora del Pilar, S.C.A.” and is based in Villacarrillo, Jaén—a small pueblo found near the crossroads of routes linking Madrid, Granada, Córdoba, and Valencia. Here in southern Spain, olive trees are king, and they reign especially so in Jaén. Spain produces over 40% of the world’s olive oil, and Jaén alone accounts for a third of the Spanish total. So although perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, I was still shocked that the biggest olive oil complex in the world was sitting in plain sight, not ten minutes down the road from my workplace!

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“Black gold,” coming straight from the olive groves of Jaen province

 

The trip naturally focused on how olive oil is made. It turns out, the actual oil extraction process isn’t too complicated. Outside, freshly-harvested olives are dumped into receptacles from trailer-hauling trucks, and from there they ascend narrow conveyor belts into the factory itself. After being stripped of their leaves and cleaned, they’re ground into a pulp, unlocking the fats that Mediterranean cultures have valued for thousands of years. Water is added to the resulting paste, and then the whole mixture is sent into centrifuges that spin at very high speeds. This spinning action takes advantage of the different densities of oil and water to separate the two and draw the desired oil toward the center of the spinning cylinder and into a tube that funnels it off.

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Part of the oil extraction process

 

From the centrifuges, the extra-virgin-as-extra-virgin-gets oil flows into tall, metal containers to rest for a few days while impurities and water float to the bottom. Finally, it’s pumped into gigantic storage tanks to await bottling—the factory we saw could hold up to 16,000,000 kg of oil!

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Enormous holding tanks to allow impurities to settle out of the new oil

 

Having lived among the olive trees for the past several months, it was an informative and interesting experience to get to see  under the hood of one of the main drivers of the Spanish economy and one of the pillars of the Spanish palate. Right outside the limits of any city Jaen you’ll find endless rows of olive groves, and marinated olives are a typical tapa you receive at any local bar or restaurant. The oil is such a staple in homes that families buy weighty five-liter jugs of it at the supermarket. And here we were, at the center of all of that.

At the end of the tour, the co-op’s representatives let us taste fresh oil from the 2012- 2013 harvest, drizzled onto light floury rolls. I would have accepted straight-up shots of oil–I love the stuff that much–but I didn’t turn down free carbs since it was, after all, time for desayuno, the morning snack. They served us oil made from typical picual-variety olives, as well as some made from arbequina ones, which had sweet hints of almond. It was all, obviously, delicious.

If you like the idea of touring vineyards in France, you’ll love a Spanish oil factory. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of oil after your visit!

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In front of the largest olive oil factory in the world

How to get there:

Our field trip went to the almazara operated by S. C. A. Nuestra Señora del Pilar. On the co-op’s website they have a contact form that could be used to request a tour. The whole complex is right outside the town of Villacarrillo, a half-hour drive from the World Heritage-listed Renaissance towns of Úbeda and Baeza. The province is surprisingly easy to get to—an hour or so from Córdoba and Granada and about three from Madrid.

 

Trevor Huxham is currently working as a language assistant in the Andalucían town of Úbeda but calls the state of Texas home. He writes about Spain, travel, and languages on his blog, “A Texan In Spain” and is looking forward to moving up to Galicia in northwest Spain in the fall.

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