The Mediterranean countries may have dominated the olive oil scenario through the last decades for their undoubtedly quality produce. But little by little, countries with no great tradition have been emerging in the market, showing that a new map of the golden liquid production has taken shape. With the world agriculture being shaken by climate change, new terroirs seem to dawn on the horizon.
It is the case of Latin America, which is already consolidated in the production of wine, for example. Slowly, the continent has yielded some outstanding olive oils produced by farmers in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay but also in countries that are generally less known in this area, such as Mexico, Brazil, and Peru. Many, ranging from small-scale family producers to the largest olive oil production company in Latin America, are focusing on quality, coming up with distinguished products that have been recognized even in international competitions, such as the New York International Olive Oil Competition, one of the most important in the market.
“It is heartening to witness the growth in volume and quality of the production in South America,” says Sandro Marques, a journalist and an olive oil expert, author of The Guide to Olive Oil from Brazil. “The rise of Latin American quality olive oil is also more present in European competitions and at Flos Olei, the most prestigious guide in this area, that selects the 500 best olive oils in the world,” he adds.
“It's great that we have quality olive oils in our countries that we can use in restaurants without the necessity to import these products,” says Brazilian chef Rafa Costa e Silva from Lasai, in Rio de Janeiro -- ranked as #26 in the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “When I opened Lasai, we used a Portuguese olive oil called Acushla, which is excellent. But with the improvement of Brazilian olive oils, today I am proud to say that we only use in our kitchen national olive oil, which is the basis of our cuisine”, he adds.
Costa e Silva works with labels such as Borriello, from Andradas, a small city in the mountains of Minas Gerais state, and Verde Louro, produced in the southern region of the country, which has an ideal temperature and soil conditions for the olive oil production.
Following the wine path
In Argentina, the terroir of regions such as Mendoza, where some of the best wines in the country are produced, is the main reason for the excitement of local farmers, who have been looking for the Argentinian wine success story to bet in a similar path for the olive oil industry.
Zuccardi, one of the most traditional and acclaimed wineries in the country, has begun producing its first crops back in 2004. Since then, the quality of the olive oil produced mainly in Finca Maipu, where the company maintains much of its olive production, has only increased.
“We realized that the local olive oil market was like our wine scene 30 years ago and that there was an opportunity to pursue high quality and develop a premium category in the country”, explains Miguel Zuccardi, who is in charge of the olive oil production from the crops to the bottles. Zuccardi produces olive oils from varieties such as Farga, Frantoio, Manzanilla, and Arauco.
The ladder, according to him, is undoubtedly the most exciting variety to harvest both for its very high-quality potential and its story in the region and is currently considered a local variety, also present in Peru and Chile. “Arauco was introduced here from Spain in 1550 approximately and for reasons unknown, it isn’t currently found in the Mediterranean Region anymore, only here in America”, Zuccardi explains.
Taking into account the projects that focus on high quality, he believes that the potential in several regions of the Southern hemisphere is very high, with excellent results in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, but also in other countries such as Australia or South Africa. “There is a big challenge to spread this perception of quality since the regular consumer usually associates olive oil with Italy or Spain, for example, unaware of the potential of our region,'' he says.
One way to achieve this, according to Miguel, is by working with chefs and cooks who are “undoubtedly the great communicators for food producers of any industry”. “Gastronomy has an important role today and cooks are educators in different aspects related to food. There is a movement towards an ingredient-based cuisine in Argentina, and a new generation of chefs is working closely in the search for ingredients from each region of the country. It allows us to be more proud of what we produce locally, and at this point, olive oil is no exception” he adds.
Olive oil and gastronomy
Across the Andes Mountains, in Chile, olive oil production has also grown, especially in terms of quality, with brands betting on olive oils that appeal mainly to haute cuisine. Alonso, a trademark of Agrícola Pobeña, is one such project, producing olive oils of varieties such as Picual, Frantoio, Koroneiki, and Coratina.
“We work with several great restaurants recognized among the best ones in Latin America that not only use our olive oil but also use different varieties of them for specific applications in the kitchen,” explains Diego Livingston, manager of Alonso, which was recognized by Flos Olei among the 20 best extra virgin olive in the world in 2017.
Among the Chilean restaurants they work with are Europeo, Ox, and Boragó, run by acclaimed chef Rodolfo Guzmán. “Since chefs are always looking for the best and freshest vegetables for their kitchen, they are more willing to understand the same applies to olive oil, and a good local product is broadly the best option they can have”, he adds.
The rise of Uruguay
In Uruguay, a country with already internationally renowned wine production, the olive oil industry also follows the principle of quality. “We are such a small country that our only option was to bet on quality, since there is not much space to do it differently”, says Natalia Welker, director of O'33, a brand that produces one of the best olive oils in the country, with awards such as a Gold Medal at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition and Prestige Gold in the Terraolivo (Israel).
“In the beginning, we had to prove ourselves in this market, show that our focus was really on producing excellent olive oil. For that, we have worked with great restaurants and chefs,” she explains. Some of them are Maca de Castro (Spain), Takehiro Ohno (Japan), Martin Arrieta (Argentina) and Hugo Soca (Uruguay).
The project, which began commercially in 2013 in Jose Ignacio, on the Uruguayan coast, produces olive oils with different varieties of olive such as Coralina, Frantoio, and Aberquina. “Today, after a few years, we are able to differentiate ourselves in the market, with awards received in Japan, US, France, and Israel”, Welker says. “But the best part was seeing that our consumers recognize the olive oil we make as a high-quality local product, on par with the good Mediterranean oils”, she concludes.