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Andalusia’s Zahara de la Sierra, with its liquid gold

A highlight of our travels through the Andalusian region of southern Spain was a stopover at one of its famous “white villages”.  We followed this up with a tour of a nearby family-run olive oil farm and a delightful luncheon, eaten al fresco.

Originally an important Moorish outpost established to defend its inhabitants from enemy attacks, today Zahara de la Sierra is a tiny but interesting hill town.  It’s one of the lesser-known villages that make up the region’s pueblos blancos.  Ruled by Arabs for seven centuries, this former fortress ultimately fell to defeat by the Catholic Monarchs in the 1400s.

Zahara, Andalusia, Spain

The approach to Zahara took us up a switchback road past hillsides dotted with omnipresent olive trees.  Everywhere we looked our eyes alighted on their silvery green leaves and gnarled and twisted trunks.  Neat rows of trees dotted the barren soil of the rocky slopes.  On the distant hillsides we spotted clusters of whitewashed houses topped with red‑tiled roofs.  Crowning an outcrop above the town the remains of a 13th century castle dominated the landscape.

Our bus parked just outside Zahara’s limits.  Its steep, narrow streets are barely wide enough to permit entry to small vehicles and delivery vans.  From here we wandered down the hill to the town centre.  Overhead celebratory flags fluttered in the breeze in preparation for an upcoming local festival.  This “feria del dia” commemorates the town’s reconquest by Christian troops in the 15th century (1483).  At the Plaza del Rey in the heart of Zahara, we sat outside in the sunshine, enjoyed a cup of steaming hot coffee and watched the world go by.  The buildings surrounding us had all been whitewashed to protect them from the sun during summer’s intense heat.  Narrow alleyways branched off in various directions.  Here and there flowers blossomed in colourful pots.  Noteworthy were the hay bales that had been piled in front of many doorways to deter flooding caused by the previous day’s unseasonably heavy rains. Zahrar, Andalusia, Spain

The day was warming up.  Not to be discouraged we started up a rough pathway leading to the square lookout tower, Torre de Homenaje or Homage Tower.  This short steep climb wended its way upward past clumps of cacti and wild flowers as well as pine, prickly pear and almond trees.  At the top, we were thankful to linger awhile.  There was a refreshing light breeze.  It had been a worthwhile exercise.  There were spectacular views over the town, the reservoir’s sparkling blue waters and the surrounding Grazalema mountains.

We made a rapid descent, clambered back on the bus and soon found ourselves on the doorstep of an olive mill (“Molina de Aceita”).  This was a small operation processing about one million kilos of olives annually.  On this farm, life proceeds in much the same way as it has for generations.  We learned about the olive’s journey from tree to table.  In October, when the olives are green with black dots, it is time for all the family to participate in the harvesting.

Olive tree, Spain

First of all a net is spread under the tree.  It is then hit with a stick and the ripe olives fall down.  Milling takes place the same day.  It is an ecologically efficient process.  The olives are washed, the water recycled, the discarded leaves become feed for the goats and the mashed up skin and pits are made into pellets for the fire.  The processing requires infinite attention to detail to ensure that the correct temperature is maintained throughout.  The result is a high quality cold pressed olive oil that is fruity, sweet and gentle.  Bottling, labeling and topping are all carried out by hand.  Our guide dispensed some interesting facts.  About 42% of the world’s olive oil is produced in Spain.  Olive trees are slow-growing and can live well over 200 years.  They produce better fruit and oil when grown in poor soil and only start to bear fruit after 15 years.  It takes approximately 3,400 olives or 5.5 kilos to produce just one litre of oil.  There are 125 different varieties of olives but just two (Manzanilla and Leccino) are milled here. Olives, Spain

Our olive oil education complete, it was time to relax on the farm’s patio and enjoy a lunch similar to that traditionally made by the grandparents for the hard-working family and their helpers.  Spread out on several tables was a selection of tapas, cold cuts, cheese, bread, plump ripe sliced tomatoes with goat cheese, a Spanish tortilla made with eggs, potatoes and onions, water, wine and juicy sweet cassava melon.  But first we tasted a Spanish-style rustic tomato soup (“salmorejo”).  The ingredients included freshly-picked tomatoes, bread, garlic, olive oil and a splash of sherry vinegar.  It was absolutely delicious!  Sitting on the shaded terrace in the midst of an olive grove, we gobbled up these tasty morsels.

Our day was almost complete.  Our tummies were full of flavorful Spanish cuisine.  We would fondly remember the charming little white village of Zahara.  And, as an added bonus, we bought the crème de la crème of souvenirs: several bottles of Spain’s “liquid gold” – 100% organic cold-pressed olive oil.

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