There are four Spanish monovarietal olive oils, namely Arbequina, Picual, Hojiblanca and Cornicabra. Picture Nokuthula Mbatha

It’s Spanish Week in South Africa! And this week we celebrate all things Spanish with a workshop at Vitality Healthyfood Studio in Sandton, held in association with The Spanish Commercial Office in Johannesburg.

“Spain’s rich gastronomic culture wouldn’t be the same if it could not draw on the food supplied by the country's varied range of climate and soils”, says Rafael Martin, Commercial Advisor of the embassy of Spain in South Africa. The most emblematic products include fish and vegetable preserve, cheese, Serrano and Ibérico ham, sausages, sweet delicacies, wines, and Spain’s liquid gold, olive oil.

Chef Mateu Blanch demonstrating the versatility of olive oils. Picture Nokuthula Mbatha

This workshop focused on Spanish olive oil as an essential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine and consequently in traditional Spanish gastronomy. Olive oils have consolidated their role in avant-garde Spanish cuisine where they feature in creative partnerships and transformations championed by the likes of award-winning Spanish Chef Mateu Blanch.

Blanch has worked with numerous Michelin-star restaurants in Spain, and in the workshop, conducted an olive oil tasting and demonstrated how to use olive oils in the elaboration of innovative textures. There are four Spanish monovarietal olive oils, namely Arbequina, Picual, Hojiblanca and Cornicabra.

“Arbequina variety is typical of the Spanish provinces of Lerida and Tarragona”, says Blanch. “It’s a sweet olive oil with fruity aromas like banana and apple”, he adds. He paired this with baguette-style tomato bread with a sprinkle of salt, and I found it crude but it’s heralded the most recommended when introducing children to the consumption of olive oil.

Codfish emulsion with raspberry gel and elastic basil olive oil. Picture Nokuthula Mbatha

Picual is possibly the most extended variety in Spain. “It’s pungent, with herbaceous aromas, and is perfect for slow-cooked stews”, says Blanch. It’s also used as  a preservative for sausages, meats, cheeses and canned foods but it isn’t recommended for use in soft flavoured dishes. For this pairing, Chef Blanch placed diced avocado and pine nuts on a chicory leaf, added two drops of tabasco and a bit of Picual olive oil to ignite the natural flavours.

Puffed wild rice with Kingklip and garlic-infused olive oil foam. Picture Nokuthula Mbatha

“The Hojiblanca olive tree is typical of the central area of Andalusia and it is characterized by the white coloured underside of its leaves - hence its name”, says Blanch. It’s bitter and works well with frying and in salads. It’s also ideal for seasoning vegetables and grilled fish. This varietal was paired with chocolate bread and Maldon salt flakes - what a flavoursome paradox.

According to Blanch, “Cornicabra originally comes from Mora de Toledo and has a high resistance to drought, frost and cold winters. It spicy and bitter, making it ideal for sauteing, vinaigrettes, pasta and ceviches”. It is recognized as one of the world’s healthiest varieties, and works well with citrus, zesty flavours. Chef Blanch paired this with peeled orange slices, sprinkled with Muscovado brown sugar.

Oranges with brown sugar and Cornicabra olive oil. Picture Nokuthula Mbatha.

This was a highly informative workshop, that opened up my eyes to the beauty and overall versatility of Spanish cuisine. For more information visit www.foodswinesfromspain.com