How to Look for a Spanish Villa for the Fall

Think of booking a villa in Spain and a lot of people will automatically start looking for availability in June, July or August. However, if you’re not following the crowds and would prefer to grab your Spanish sunshine in the fall, here are a few things to consider when you start browsing the Spanish villas for your break in the leafy season.

Think about heading south

The south of Spain tends to be a little hotter than the north, even in the autumn when temperatures are cooling down after the scorching summer. This makes it a good time to book some days away in the Spanish villas on the Costa del Sol, which British expats are so fond of. During the fall, the Costa del Sol enjoys approximately seven hours of daylight, which is a little more than some of the regions of the country.

One of the good things about the fall is that the crowds have started to clear away, so if you’re staying in the Costa del Sol you can visit attractions like the caves of Nerja without having to queue for as long.

Image by Psicobyte, used under Creative Commons license 2.0

Consider the scenery

The Costa Blanca may see its fair share of tourism and cater for that, but it also has some quaint towns and villages for those who want to explore as well as sit out in the sun. These include the fishing villages of Jávea, which has a gorgeously sandy beach, and Altea, which is a curious blend of traditional and cosmopolitan with houses that are whitewashed, streets that are winding and cobbled, but shops that are designer and therefore for more expensive tastes.

While in the Costa Blanca, you can visit the Girona river in the Orba Valley or head to Dènia and visit the castle. The temperature in the Costa Blanca during the fall is pleasant at a warm yet still mild 23°C. There are normally about six hours of daylight.

Image by schermpeter42, used under Creative Commons licence 2.0

Gauge opportunities to travel

When choosing your location, you might want to think about opportunities to travel a little further afield. For instance, if you decide to stay mainland you could book a villa in Portugal somewhere near the Spanish border, then cross the border and do a day trip in Spain. Alternatively, you can stay at a villa on an island and hop on a ferry over to a nearby island and do some exploring.

Flexibility is often the key in travel to getting the most out of your experiences. If you’re feeling a little undecided about when and where you can book a villa, why not consult the Villa Plus website and see how they can help you. They offer accommodation in Spain, Portugal and other popular destinations.

villas-in-spain

And remember: you don’t always have to hit Spain in the summer to get the most out of your Spanish villa. The fall is a fantastic time to visit. In fact, what better time (and excuse!) is there than a milder season to dip some churros in chocolate!

Where are you traveling this autumn?

Photo Post: Palacio de Las Dueñas, the Duquesa de Alba’s Treasured Home in Sevilla

Just like on the day of her death, my phone started pinging with the news that the Duquesa de Alba’s beloved palace, Palacio de las Dueñas, would be converted into a public museum. Sleep still crusting my eyes from a Friday afternoon siesta, I search for a projected opening date, scrawled “PALACIO DUEÑAS TIX” on an open page of my agenda, and rolled back to sleep.

Several weeks later, under a post-Feria chill and dreary skies, I did a personal pilgrimage to honor Doña Cayetana de Alba, stopping at three of her favorite places – the brotherhood of Los Gitanos, Palacio de las Dueñas and Bar Dueñas.

la_duquesa_de_alba_vf_3765_622x466

Born to an aristocratic family in Madrid before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart (and that’s just the short version of her 26 names) lived her life in constant fear of being alone, bounced between London and the Spanish capital. Despite being gifted in arts and horsemanship and considered one of Span’s most beautiful young women, she only truly felt fulfilled when she was visiting her Tía Sol in Andalucía, according to her autobigraphy Yo, Cayetana.

And it was here at Palacio de las Dueñas, a 15th Century state home situated in the heart of Seville, where she’d marry her third husband, live out the happiest of her days surrounded by art and bubbling fountains, and where she’d return to die.

I began first at her final resting place, the Templo de Nuestro Padre Jesús de la Salud y Nuestra Señora de las Angustias Coronadas (locals call it Los Gitanos for the religious brotherhood that does it penitence during the Madrugá). In a humble tomb decorated with dried flowers rests the hermandad’s gran anfitriona, a large marble plaque marking her final wish to be buried near the altar. Cayetana was a people’s princess of sorts, and her devotion to the brotherhood and fervent faith was as as strong as her love of horses, bullfighting and flamenco.

House of Alba

I wandered the backstreets of a neighborhood I don’t know very well, close to Los Jardínes del Valle, to kill time. Cayetana was often seen out walking, not afraid to be hounded by paparazzi or approached by sevillanos. The only time I ever saw her, she was chattering away in a horse carriage at the fairgrounds, as if she were just another well-to-do sevillana (or at least one of those who took out a loan to guardar aperiencias and pay for the new traje de gitana).

Through marriages and kingdoms uniting over six centuries, the Casa de Alba became one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Spain. By the time Cayetana was born in 1926, the family had amassed over a dozen properties, countless works of art and handicrafts and a name that made anyone either roll their eyes at their immense wealth or sigh in wonder.

Facade of Palacio de las Dueñas Sevilla

Palacio de las Dueñas, named for a monastery that once stood on the grounds, was a place I had to visit before leaving Seville. When my friend Claudia lived next door, I’d often crane my neck over her fourth-floor balcony to see into the palace walls. Orange trees and tiles rooftops covered the patios and living quarters, and that quick glimpse of her dandelion hair at the Feria was all I’d get until she died in late 2014 and I, along with thousands of others, attended her closed-casket wake.

Even though I’d arrived a quarter hour early, the guard let me in, and I had a few moments in the inviting courtyard to breathe in the dew on the naranjo trees. The ivy- and bougainvillea-covered façade was perhaps the most inviting part of the property, a landmark that’s seen dignitaries, foreign movie stars and the glamoratti sleep in its many bedrooms.

Grand Entranceto Palacio Las Duenas Sevilla

Duquesa de Alba's Home in Sevilla

Palacio de las Dueñas Details

Typical house in Seville Spain

The 1,900 square meter property has long been closed to the public, save special events. And even with that much space, once the 11am entrance time hit, I was constantly being bumped into by old ladies or screeched at to move by the same old ladies. I lingered, letting them pass through to the inner gardens while I, like Cayetana, sought refuge in the stables (my mother would be proud).

Considering horses and bullfighting to be two of her greatest passions, the Duquesa kept horses on her property and owned several carriages – not to mention the dozen or so private farms that belonged to her before she divvied them up preceding her third marriage.

Duchess of Alba Horses

House of Alba Crest

The humble stable opens up into a small, dense garden lined with tiled benches, pockmarked with fountains and reminiscent of other famous residents of Dueñas.

Antonio Machado, poeta celebré of Andalucía, was born in the palace when it was still a corral de vecinos, immoralized in ‘Autorretrato de Campos de Castilla’:

Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla
y un huerto claro donde madura el limonero[…]

Gardens in Palacio las Dueñas

What does the Duchess of Alba's house look like

Framed by Arabic lattice work etched in marble, arches lead from the private garden into the main living quarters, themselves surrounding a breezy interior patio decked out with sculptures, tapestries and paintings. More than money in the bank, the Casa de Alba’s legacy lies in its numerous land holdings and priceless art collection, protected by the Fundación Casa de Alba.

Living Quarters in Dueñas

Interior of Palacio de las Dueñas

Details of Dueñas

Artwork in Dueñas

Artistry at Dueñas palace

The tour leads guests through half a dozen rooms on the ground floor, a glimpse into how the Duquesa lived and a taste of her greatest aficiones evident in the decoration and her personal items. Betis flags, sketches, Spanish history books and old Fiestas de Primavera posters seemed to cover every inch of wall, statues scattered throughout great halls.

The most curious item? A white zuchetto, enclosed in a glass case near the altar where Cayetana wed her third husband.

sala del bailaora

The Duquesa de Alba's personal things

Duquesa de Alba's art

Sala de Carteles

Like Cayetana, I know that Seville is a city that gets under your skin – it’s one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had – and Dueñas celebrates her eccentricity and the beauty and cultural tradition of the city. Like Sevilla, the house is timeless and at its most beautiful in the springtime.

“Todas las primaveras
tiene Sevilla
una nueva tonada
de seguidillas;
nuevos claveles
y niñas que, por mayo,
se hacen mujeres”
-Antonio Machado, “Sevilla y otros poemas”

Inside the Duquesa de Alba's home

Seville has several beautiful casa-palacios open to the public – Casa Pilatos or Casa de la Condesa de Lebrija being standouts – but Palacio Las Dueñas seems to capture recent history in a way that the former miss.

After passing through the grand vestibule, I paused in the Jardin de Santa Justa and looked at my watch. It was nearing 12:30, the perfect hour to hop across the street to Bar Las Dueñas, a humble tapas bar where Cayetana would have her daily cervecita. I toasted silently to Cayetana’s memory, her legacy and the sevillano sun beginning to break through the clouds.

Palacio de las Dueñas

If you go: Rumor has it that the reason the palace has been opened to the public is strictly financial: the Duquesa’s heir couldn’t pay the taxes it. Regardless, it’s a fine example of sevillano architecture and a museum to one of the city’s most prominent figures in recent history.

Dueñas is open to the public for self-guided tours for a price of 8€, closing only on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the Epiphany. Summer hours stretch from 10am until 8pm; the palace closes in the winter at 6pm. You can nab tickets at the gate (note that there’s a limited number available, and tickets have an hourly entrance time) or on ticketea.

I opted for the audio guide, which cost 2€ after the entrance fee. The guide not only gave me a solid understanding of the Alba family’s legacy, which stretches back four centuries, but also pointed out architectural and aesthetic details. This house has museum status, so spring for it!

Have you been to the Palacio de las Dueñas or other state museums in Spain? Check out my posts on the Monastery of Yuste, where Emperor Carlos V went to die and the preserved medieval walls at Ávila.

Preguntas Ardientes: Can I Enjoy the Feria de Abril as a Tourist?

The azahar bloomed while I was away. Even in Valencia, home to the famous oranges of the same name, the smell was cinged off by firecrackers and smoke during Las Fallas. And as I watched a gigantic Merlin burn from a towering statue to a small pyre, marking the end of my first Fallas, my next thought was immediately on the next big event: the Feria de Sevilla.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

I am a dedicated feriante – I try on my traje de gitana weeks before to ensure its fit, attend flamenco fashion shows and a sevillana was the third song played at my wedding. I wait for the alumbrado with as much nervous energy as I pine for the last day of school. Feria is my jam, and everyone knows it.

But what if you’re a tourist, or passing though Seville during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? I get this question often, and not just from tourists, but from those living elsewhere in Spain. I may live the sevillana version of high life when it comes to horse carriages and caseta invitations on occasion, but I also freak out in the days leading up to the fair, thinking that I may not have a place to go, or I may be stuck wandering the Real while I wait for a friend to answer their GD phone. In no other moment do I feel as foreign as I do local.

Know Before You Go

Spain is definitely a country that, on the surface, seems welcoming. The sunshine! The fiestas! The people! But in Seville, lo señorío and el postureo run deep, meaning that anyone outside of posh social clubs, religious brotherhoods or the Duquesa de Alba’s inner circle can get left in the albero.

farolillos

Begun as a cattle fair several centuries ago, the Feria de Abril marks the first of Andalusia’s springtime fairs. It’s the largest, most popular, and the place to see and be seen. During one glorious week of the springtime, makeshift tents, called casetas, are erected on a patch of land that is unused for 51 weeks of the year. This is called the Real de la Feria, and in the weeks leading up to the event, workers log in hours setting up the casetas, stringing up lights and building an enormous main gate, called the portada.

The party starts on the third Monday following Resurrection Sunday with a socios-only fried fish dinner, known at the pescaíto. At midnight, the mayor turns on the lights of the entire fairgrounds, ending with the portada, and sevillanas immediately tumble out of the tents. The Feria continues every day from about 1pm until the wee hours of the morning, officially shuttered on Sunday night with a fireworks display at dusk.

alumbrado feria de sevilla 2010

The casetas are owned by religious groups, social clubs, political parties and groups of wealthy friends. A whopping 90% of them are privately owned and run, so you’ll usually see someone guarding the entrance and asking for proof that you’re in association with the tent’s dwellers that week. And the list for securing your own caseta is over a decade long, so it’s best to make friends before the fair starts.

Making the most of Seville’s most exclusive party

Feria is an expensive party – from the horse carriage rentals to the tent memberships to the clothing – but it’s free to attend, and gawking doesn’t cost a cent. But to truly enjoy it, you may have to lower your expectations.

La Feria en Crisis

First, know that there are two sides to the fair: Feria de Día, and Feria de Noche. Daytime fair is far more demure, as this is when most socios spend their time at the fairgrounds; the fair at night becomes borderline hedonistic, where tent flaps are drawn and sevillanas disappear.

Should you choose to go in the daytime, you’ll be treated to carriage parades and striking Andalusian horses until dusk – not to mention the daily bullfights happening in La Maestranza, bringing in some of the biggest names in bullfighting. This is the fair at its purest, with flamenco music playing and castanets clapping. Be aware that this is also when it’s the most difficult to gain access to the private tents. I have a less-than-stellar reputation of inviting my friends to Los Sanotes, which means side eyes and a stiff greeting from a few of the more traditional socios. But once night falls, most of the older crowd has gone home, making it easier to pop in and out of the casetas.

Free Casetas  – the city operates a number of public access Distrito tents, which are larger and a bit more raucous than a traditional tent. Those also open to the general public are casetas belonging to political parties, labor unions and, in some cases, religious brotherhoods.

A Map of the Seville Fair fairground and free public casetas

If you know someone who is in the local police force or works for a large, locally-based company like Abengoa or ABC, ask them if you can buy entrances from them. These sorts of places don’t operate using cash, but rather tickets in various denominations for food and beverage.

Or, you can always use the, “My friend is back at the bar and not answering my phone calls” trick to sneak into a crowded tent! Not that I ever have.

Dressing Up – On my first Feria, the Novio invited me to his best friend’s family’s tent (a rather estrecha relationship for Feria) for the Alumbrado. Knowing that the fairgrounds were full of albero, a chalky dirt than lends well to both bullfights and horse poop, I dressed as if I were doing housework – ratty jeans and tennis shoes.

I may never live that or the baby-sized complementos down (ugh, not to mention both a mantoncillo and a gargantilla wrapped into one outfit):

Vamanos a la Feria Carino Mio!

Remember that this is an event where you’re to see and be seen. Even if you’re not planning on donning a pricey traje de gitana, women should wear a dress or dress trousers. I don’t know how, but heels are a must. Men, in many private casetas, are required to wear a suit and tie after 9pm, regardless of the heat.

And please none of those souvenir-shop dresses or hair clips – that screams guiri more than getting too drunk off of rebujito!

Etiquette – That brings me to my next point, or fairground etiquette. On Seville’s biggest stage, you’ll notice that despite the abundance of alcohol and atmosphere, no one is outwardly drunk until nighttime. I was once kicked out of a caseta for being with a friend who’d imbibed a little too much!

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

If you receive an invitation to a private caseta, don’t bring 10 more of your friends without asking. It’s customary to buy the first round of drinks, though you’ll more than likely be turned down. If the tent is crowded, don’t immediately take a seat, as it’s an unwritten rule that those tables are reserved for paying members. Instead, make friends with the bartender – just don’t forget to pay your tab or overstay your welcome!

Some casetas will simply ask you who you’re with, as it is up to that socio or family to split the bill at the end of the week.

Spanish and Flamenco dancing – I’m often asked how necessary it is to dance sevillanas to enjoy the fair. While it’s definitely my favorite part of the whole experience, you do not have to know this four-part dance. Sitting and watching is fun, and people will often break into the dance on the streets, as well.

Should you be in Seville for a few weeks and want to learn, dance studios and gyms have intensive courses for 10-15€/hr. Check out Cuesta Sport, Látidos or Helena Pachón to learn how to coger la manzana, la comes, la tiras.

Flamencas on a horse carriage

As for knowing Spanish – it’s helpful. How else will you insist upon buying a whole round of montaditos de lomo for your generous hosts?

Fairground Tours – if you’re a little freaked out for a first-timer, find the information booth just under the main gate on Antonio Bienvenida. The city’s tourism board offers tours around the fairgrounds, culminating in a drink in a public caseta. Let the rebujito flow!

My advice for a Feria first-timer

I was completely unprepared for my first Feria, from my lack of proper clothing to not saving enough money to truly enjoy it. If you’re visiting Seville for the first time, don’t let the Feria be your only plans – since the fairgrounds aren’t in the city center, you’ll find that it’s less intrusive than Semana Santa.

Portada de la Feria 2013

Take one day out to go to the Real after lunchtime and a siesta. Dress up nicely – long, dangly earrings and a shawl are fine, but don’t overdo it if you don’t have a traje de gitana, ladies. Walk across the Puente de San Telmo and the entire length of Calle Asuncion, which leads right to the main gate. Take a stroll around the Real to marvel at the horses and the elegant costumes before popping into a public caseta – the Fiestas Mayores (Costillares, 10) and Partido Popular (Pascual Márquez, 66) tents are a bit pricier for food and drink, but often have live music from 8pm or 10pm on. If you can’t score a private tent invitation and sweet talking gets you nowhere, skip dinner and have hot chocolate and fried donuts on Calle Manolo Vázquez.

How To (3)

Read more of my posts on the Feria de Abril, Seville’s most flamboyant celebration, from how to dress and dress up your dress, a list of vocabulary you’ll encounter and the Dos and Dont’s.

Have you been to the Feria de Sevilla as a tourist? What were you thoughts – I would love to hear the negative!

Vía Crucis de Santiponce: Semana Santa Lite

Torches lined the gravel path, which inclined ever-so-slightly upwards. Mari Carmen had taken hold of my arm and was pulling me forward through the crowds as pebbles rolled out of place, causing me to stumble – no joke – three times. Up ahead, a procession showing Christ carrying the cross was reaching the top of the hill.

Via Crucis Santiponce

When my friend invited me to a Saturday night out at a small-scale religious procession, I hadn’t been skeptical or searching for something better to do. After turning 30, some sort of chip clicked on, and I have been determined to switch up my weekend routine ever since. Because, #thisis30 and my stamina is not what it used to be. Attending one of the Aljarafe’s most celebrated fiestas locales with an American friend’s Andalusian mother-in-law was going to be a new experience.

Santiponce traditional festival

Accompanied by a somber three-piece woodwind band, we were able to sneak around the gold-laden paso and slip into the crowd next to the local cemetery. Close to 50 brothers, torches and cruces de guía in hand, had taken up rank across from the cemetery’s western wall as Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno sliced through the masses of people. Even on my toes, I couldn’t see but as he passed through the gate, the speakers crackled to life with the Our Father.

Growing up Catholic, I’d learned many prayers by heart, but even working in a Catholic grade school hadn’t prompted me to learn the words in Spanish. I bowed my head so that Mari Carmen wouldn’t see that I couldn’t say more than Padre Nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre

What is a via crucis

As the procession backed up and headed down the hill towards Itálica, an ancient Roman town that saw prosper and the birth of two emperors, I could finally ask Mari Carmen why she’d invited three guiris out to a procession. The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is one of Spain’s most revered Lenten activities, and draws the participation of brotherhoods, called hermandades, from around Spain.

Following the old Roman road through Itálica, we stopped and waited near the entrance to the ampitheatre. Inside, fourteen brotherhoods would line up along the oblong-shaped walls with their cruz de guía, or the crucifix that heads up each procession in its respective hermandad. No pointy hats here. The Cristo would stop at each one as an hermano would read passages from the Bible and pray an Our Father fourteen times.

Via Crucis Spain

Just as the paso passed into the amphitheater, the clouds broke and a drizzle began to fall. Umbrellas went up, blocking my view. Even the threat of rain keeps most Cristos and Vírgenes at home, safe in their temples, but the 25 year-old tradition wouldn’t let the damp weather spoil its journey. Instead, a poncho was placed around the veneration’s shoulders and the first station – Jesus is condemned to death – was completed.

Torches burned and the crowd thinned out at Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno made his way through the last moments of his life. We followed him as he passed the stone walls of Itálica’s most famous ruin as he figuratively prepared for his death and resurrection.

hermandades en un via crucis

Via Crucis Spain Italica

Brotherhoods participating in a Via Crucis in Spain

Altarboys Spain

Santiponce Via Crucis

A tí te gusta la Semana Santa, Cat? Mari Carmen asked, again clutching my arm as we heard the grunts and shoe scoffing of the costaleros under the float as they approached 11th station, the crucifixion. Like Semana Santa, a Vía Crucis a moment of reflection and meditation, a plead for forgiveness or piety, but without the crowds and the pushing come Palm Sunday.

I answered her no, that the raucous celebration of the Feria de Sevilla were far more my pace.

If you go: The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is celebrated yearly and of touristic interest. It is held on the first Sunday of Lent, typically in late February or early March. Admission is free and parking is ample, or you can take the M-170A from Plaza de Armas. 

Via Crucis Santiponce2

Have you ever been to a religious celebration? Have any cool events to share in Spain? If you liked these photos, check out last year’s Palm Sunday processions photo diary!

Photo Post: The Smurf Village of Júzcar, Málaga

If there is one thing that sleepy Júzcar, a small pueblo blanco at the end of a curving mountain highway near Ronda, can claim, it’s that Smurfs live among them. In this teeny village known for its mytocology and hiking trails, you might notice something that distinguishes it from the other so-called white villages in the region – the whole town is painted bright blue!

Blue village in Spain

This hamlet perched high in the Valle del Genal has gained international fame thanks to Madrid-based publicity agency Bungalow25 (with whom I’m working on the Caser Expat ‘Typical Non-Spanish” project), Sony Pictures and more than 1000 gallons of paint.

Before the premiere of the Smurfs in 2011, Júzcar was a quick pit stop in the Serranía de Ronda, literally drawfed by other, more picturesque towns in the valley. Taking those words to heart, the town was doused in a layer of blue paint to boost tourism to an otherwise blip on a map. Cue allusions to ‘Pitufolandia’ and worldwide media fame.

panorama of Juzcar, Spain

Blue colored village Juzcar

Smurfs in Spain

pueblo pitufo spain

pitufolandia Spain

Smurf related ideas

Tourism in Juzcar Spain

While there’s not much to do in town – we were in, out and fed in an hour – the simple novelty is not lost. In fact, we were there on Día de Andalucía, along with half of the province! Bars were full, kids darting from cerulean shop to shop decked out in their own white smurf hats and parking was a nightmare, proving that a little bit of imagination can do wonders for tourism. That said, the town has yet to capitalize on it to its fullest extent!

Júzcar, Spain-

If you go: Júzcar is best reached by car, but you can take local buses from Ronda, which is 25 kilometers to the northeast. Parking is free.

Typical Non Spanish

I visited Júzcar as part of my Typical Non Spanish project with Caser Expat Insurance and my promise to myself to do 52 new things in 2016! Anything I can’t miss – be it sites, experiences or food – around Andalucía?

The Curious Case of Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“Passion and quality are at the heart of this venture. It’s that simple.”

I sneezed, a clear sign that spring was about to settle onto Andalucía for a brief period of time before melting into summer. The breeze picked up, and I wrinkled my nose, lest any more oliva pollen enter my system. For as andaluza as I sometimes feel and act, my allergies gave me up as an utter fraud, calling attention to me in a group of nearly 50.

Bodeguero puppy

Isaac Martín, event coordinator for Basilippo, an award-winning olive oil producer internationally recognized for its quality, kicked off a tasting event that was punctuated by my sniffles. Set at an old hacienda buried within acres of olive trees, an internet search for foodie experiences brought me to one of western Andalucía’s foremost producers of liquid gold, extra virgin olive oil.

Teetering on winter and spring, I was willing to risk puffy eyes to learn how to properly taste olive oil and look out for its quality and properties. As a staple of the Mediterranean diet, its health properties have long been touted, but not all aceite de olivo virgen extra is created equal: supermarket buyers often have to pick between an entire shopping aisle’s worth of brands and varying quality.

Arbequina olive oil from Andalucía

And the good stuff doesn’t come cheap.

The Basilippo brand, made with the manzanilla and arbequina varieties of olives, has been my go-to brand when bringing home a nice bottle for foodie friends, but I shamefully catalogued what I used to cook with or a dress a salad with at home: whatever came cheapest and in a plastic bottle. I had a lot to learn, and creative packaging could not longer be a barometer for quality.

And for a small-batch, family-run brand, passion for the ripest fruit and top-tier production practices, only the best would do.

Inside Hacienda Merrha’s lofty tasting room, several round tables sat armed with jewel blue tasting cups, a brasero disguised underneath by heavy cloaks. Diego Vergara, responsible for the company’s marketing, held up two sherry glasses full of orange juice as we sat. 

Properly tasting olive oil

His explanation of how to distinguish extra virgin olive oil was simple: one was an orange juice squeezed from ripe oranges. The second was a bastardization of orange pulp, colorants, chemicals and mass production. In other words, it was a soft drink meant to mimic the flavor of orange juice. If the product was bruised or off, the taste and aromas would be off. Perfection is this business, amidst mass production and knocks offs, truly came down to passion for the cleanest, most natural product.

The scents naturally found in olive oil – grass, banana and traces  of fruit – laced the air as the heater next to our legs in turn heated the smooth, rounded tasting capsules for optimum olfactory pleasure.

Flavors present in EVOO

Oil exists in dozens of varieties, and olives have been picked, pressed and packaged into olive oil for nearly eight millennia. Extra virgin – considered the healthiest and ripest state of the olive – occurs when no heat treatments have been applied to the product and is made from 100% olives of the same type. All other oils wane in quality, thus driving down the price. Packaging can also make a difference, as olive oil loses its properties with exposure to light or heat.

Again, I fully admit to being ashamed of the marca blanca I have stocked at the back of my pantry.

The three blue cups sat before us. Two contained about a tablespoon of product and were covered with a plastic condiment lid. The third, sitting at 7 o’clock, was filled and quickly covered. Blue cups are typically used in blind tasting as, unlike wine, color is not a factor in determining an oil’s quality. Smell and taste take all the credit here.

como degustar aceite de oliva

Olive oil’s properties are strongest when it’s as close to harvest as possible. The generous pours came from a bottle only a few weeks old, and Diego generated a bit of heat to release its intoxicating smell by cupping the glass in his hand and rotating it back and forth as if opening a bottle of pickles for about 15 seconds. Next came a quick whiff and recapping the jar.

We’d all come for the tasting portion of course, and sloshing it around your mouth like Adolfo of Plus Vino showed me to do wouldn’t cut it:

Olive oil has different tastes on your tongue and taste buds. Sucking in air as it travels towards the back of the throat makes it taste more viscous and potent. And I wasn’t the only one who got a burn in the back of the throat – slurps were followed by gags, coughs and grunts, the sign of a quality harvest.

Moving on, we paired a vanilla-infused organic oil with both regañá crackers and a crisp, hard cheese, as well as a pineapple ice cream drizzled in olive oil. Though most of Basilippo’s bottles come with recommendations for consumption, the kitchen serves more innovative dishes.

The man immediately on my left seemed to be some sort of aficionado and asked the white elephant question: How did Basilippo feel about the “adulteration” of Spanish olive oil? 

Brought up as extended family of the Rubinellis and the Dell’Alpe dynasty – a Chicago-based import company known for its quality Italian products – olive oil has always been a staple in my family’s kitchen. And until moving to Spain, I was convinced that Italy produced the highest quality product. But European olive oil is on par with organized crime – even though Spain produces roughly 40% of the world’s olive oil, most is shipped in bulk to Italy before being bottled, giving the impression that most olive oil is coming straight from the Boot.

How to do an olive oil tasting

This has been going on since the Roman occupation of Spain, when olive oil was used in commerce and called liquid gold (and in all fairness, my Italian relatives have a soft spot for Spanish cuisine). I’ve long felt that Spain is only beginning to embrace competing on an international market with its food products, and I’d likely consumed them as they paraded as Italian. 

But Basilippo’s product was meant to stay with the connoisseurs, a thead that runs thorughout its four generations of olivareros. International consumption is definitely on the table – they’ve won numerous awards worldwide and run a quality assurance program attended by visitors abroad – and they’ve got a strong local following. I thought back to Isaac’s powerful speech in which his love for his business reach my consciousness despite the sneezing and nose blowing. Passion isn’t so much an ingredient, but a habit at Merrha.

Diego explained that close to 10 pounds of olives are necessary to produce a single liter of olive oil of any quality, hence the small batches coming out of Basilippo (the production comes from just 20 hectacres of olivos). By the time our group of nearly 50 hit the gift shop, we’d depleted a large portion of stock. I introduced myself to Isaac, chuffed that so many phenomenal gastronomic treats now formed an important base in my diet.

fried olives from Andalucía

Unsatisfied with a few morsels of bread for mopping up oil in the gift shop, I sneezed my way back to the car and we struck out towards El Viso del Alcor. Craddled between Mairena and El Viso, this privileged land was believed to have been inhabited as Tartessos. It’s also home to one of the zone’s most innovative tapas bars, MasQueTapas.

All of the dishes on the two-paged menu are made with products from down the road at Basilippo and the place was packed on a rainy Saturday. As the waiter brought out drinks, he laid down a small dish of fried olives.

“But heating the olives changes their properties,” Kelly said, popping one into her mouth. “So these are probably the rejects.”

Low quality or not, they were exquisite, proof that a small sliver of land in my backyard, with its rolling groves of olive trees (and toxins for my system) is producing what could be the world’s most perfect crop.

a tasting at Basilippo

I’m on a mission to do something new every week of 2016 – from visiting a new village to trying a new bar or restaurant. Have suggestions for in or around Andalucía? Please share them, and take a tour of Basilippo‘s immaculate grounds, just 30 minutes from Seville (they’ll even pick you up if you use public transportation!). You can buy their products in small gourmet shops like Oleo-lé in central Seville.

Have you ever attended a strange food tasting?

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