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!
They worked by moonlight – the full moon. La luna llena. Exhausted after a full day’s work of planting, they continued into the night, sowing their future. The King had commissioned it. In order to run the bandits out of the Sierra, he would have the land settled. Anyone who could replace the bramble with olive trees would be rewarded with a title to the land. However, not everyone that arrived in hope of homesteading could afford the task at hand. The less fortunate planted for others by day so that they might earn the means to plant for themselves by night.
This is the story of the Sierra Morena, known locally as the Sierra de la Luna, the area of land just north of Cordoba. While it may be a quick journey by bird’s wings, by compact European auto it is a painfully bumpy, nauseatingly curvy and naturally breathtaking drive. As I willed my breakfast to stay down, Jesus navigated the hairpin turns while sharing the story of the Mountains of the Moon. It was back in the 18 th century, when King Carlos III offered land in return for clearing the Sierra of the gangs of bandits that had plagued the kingdom for years. Today, these 300 year-old trees produce the Nevadillo Blanco olive, which can only be found in the Sierra de la Luna. I had come to see for myself what made the olive oil produced from this region so outstanding.
About twenty-five years ago, Jesus Fernendez de Castro and Transito Habas Sanchez, fresh out of college – Jesus was a Philosophy major and Transito studied journalism – decided to return to the land and put some of their optimistically youthful ideas to work. It was an uphill battle, but sitting in their beautiful old farmhouse listening to their stories gave me the impression that it was well worth the struggle.
Jesus’ great grandfather had bought the cortijo – the 1000 olive tree farm – back in 1875, and installed a stone mill to produce olive oil for local sale. The mill was in operation until 1956, when it became more economical to simply hire people to work the land and sell the olives to the newly established local cooperative. Jesus’ grandfather dismantled the traditional mill and over time, the family lost their direct connection to the land.
This wasn’t unusual. Many people in La Luna were finding it difficult to support their families from the land. They moved to the cities, returning to their country homes for weekend jaunts, while their trees were left overgrown and untended.
Jesus and Transito set out to prove it is still possible to live off the land. Taking over the family farm, and acquiring an additional 13,000 untended trees from absent neighbors, they went to work to create a truly sustainable farm that would support their growing family. And boy, did they start from scratch! Working by the light of oil lamps as late as the early 80’s, they studied and implemented organic agriculture and animal husbandry techniques, built a new mill, and worked with their local community to bring electricity to the area. Living so close, yet so far, from today’s conveniences has encouraged Transito and Jesus to rely on a mix of traditional techniques and modern technology: rainwater capture is the only water used on the farm, solar panels supply all of their electricity needs for the majority of the year, and hot coals under the dining room table keep visitors warm during delicious four-hour meals.
Today, Jesus and Transito produce about 40,000 liters of organic Olivar de la Luna oil a year from olives harvested from their own trees. They raise 400 sheep that groom the land (they seem to have a taste for olives) and are sold for organic meat. Their 10-year old son, Jesusito, tends to the 300 chickens and earns half of the profit for all the organic eggs he gathers and sells at the local market.
As they guided me through their home, their land, and their history, I was touched by the consciousness with which they lived. On the farm nothing is wasted. Unproductive trees or branches are ground up and mixed with the waste from the mill to be used as organic fertilizer. The sheep, chickens, and horses all have multiple uses from aerating soil to providing food and warmth. Neighbors are few and far between, but they all look to each other in times of trouble and joy. Jesus and Transito have been leaders in their community, promoting more sustainable forms of agriculture and animal husbandry, and consistently fighting to protect the land for future generations. Farmers come from all over Spain to learn their techniques, no one is turned away.
I was reluctant to leave Jesus and Transito and their 400 sheep. I wanted to be given some type of farming implement and be put to good use.
I fell in love with the Sierra de la Luna and this extraordinary family. They have enthusiastically invited me back. And I have vowed to return during the harvest to learn more of the Sierra’s secrets. Transito promises to teach me Sevillanas, the beautiful couples’ dance from Andalusia, and Jesus has promised to take me horseback riding. But for now it was time to go. I had found what I had come for – the secret of the oil: a large dose of love, consistent hard work, and a respect for nature’s process. And of course, a touch of the moon.