This is one in a series of re-posts from past travels by Culinary Collective founders Betsy Power and Pere Selles to Spain and Peru. Culinary Collective travels the world to find the very best gourmet traditional foods, supporting small producers who have strong ties to their lands and their communities. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as the ultimate destination – delicious food!
It had been a long week, running from meeting to meeting during the day, visiting friends and family at night. Crazy as it sounds, we were actually grateful to jump into the car and escape from the big city of Barcelona and move onto our next stop. Heading south and then east, we left the Mediterranean and the coastal landscape behind as we climbed and swerved through red hills strewn with olive and nut trees, vineyards, and distant wind turbines. Reaching our destination, we dropped our bags at the only hotel in town and set off for our meeting with the company that had brought us to this beautiful hilly region
We had arrived in Priorat, so named for the “Prior” or head of the Cartesian Monks that ruled this land many years ago. “This is where they controlled all of the wine and olive oil production for the whole Priorat region,” explained Xavi Buil as we stood outside of the ancient monastery on our tour through Priorat. Xavi, our guide and the owner of Priorat Natur decided that it was important for us to understand Priorat, its beauty, history and unique characteristics, before we could begin to understand the treasures that Priorat Natur has to offer.
Priorat, made up of small valleys located 400 meters above sea level and protected by mountains ranging from 700-1100 meters, is a unique land known for its exceptional products with a quality not matched anywhere else in the world. For hundreds of years, wine was the region’s top product, with wine makers in Bordeaux vying for the opportunity to obtain Priorat wine to augment their vintages. Other crops, such as arbequina olives, marcona almonds, negreta hazelnuts, and figs were also abundant in the region, but were traditionally used mostly to delineate the vineyards.
When disaster struck the vineyards 100 years ago, as it had in France just a few years earlier, wine production in the region was all but wiped out. Over the years it has made a comeback, but the other Priorat products have really come to the forefront. This is especially true for the arbequina olives and the exquisite olive oil that is produced from them.
We had the opportunity to dip into this oil at our next stop on the agenda, dinner in the home of Xavi Buil with his partner Xavi Fusté, prepared and served by our host himself. The setting, the wine cellar of the beautiful family home in Falset, overlooks the family garden overflowing with all of the local fruit trees we had seen on our tour that afternoon. As if this were not enough to impress, Xavi Buil treated us to one bottle after another of his very own wine Giné i Giné. As the wine and food began to flow, so too did the stories.
Both of Xavi’s grandfathers were cultivators. His mother’s father had been a farmer in Priorat, growing grapes, olives, almonds, and hazelnuts. He married the daughter of a wine and olive oil seller, and opened a store in Falset. His grandfather on his father’s side had farmed wheat and olives. The next generation had other ideas and the family lands were sold off. But the family tradition of making local products continued each year with the harvest from the family garden. Xavi, as a young boy, dreamed of starting his own business producing and selling these traditional products, to reinstate the world of his grandparents.
In 1996, after business school, Xavi Buil and his childhood friend Xavi Fusté, who had just graduated with a degree in administration, began producing arbequina olives and carmelized nuts out of the family home. After one successful year, the pair established Priorat Natur and extended their product line. Today they produce about 9,000 liters of olive oil and 28,000 kilos of Arbequina olives a year. All of the production is done by hand with the goal of preserving the Priorat reputation of exceptional quality products. After one tasting with the Xavi’s, it is obvious that this goal has been exceeded.
Priorat Natur’s golden olive oil “Neus” has already made a name for itself in the claustrophobic world of olive oil. Having won two awards for best olive oil, one in Germany and one in Spain, it has begun to get quite a following in the U.S. as well. The distinctive buttery taste characteristic of all arbequina oils is improved upon by the obvious attention to detail that Priorat Natur invests in each bottle. From the hand picking and selecting of the olives, to the careful decantation process, to the hand bottling, this product screams Exceptional!
The same holds true for all Priorat Natur products: arbequina, aragonesa “broken”, and empeltre olives all hand selected and cured in water, salt and herbs from 3-12 months; roasted and carmelized nuts made by hand in small batches; and jams and marmalades with all natural ingredients and beautiful packaging.