California Olive Cultivars: Sevillano
In Andalucia, Southern Spain, there’s a large olive variety known as Gordal. The name of the olive refers to “gorda” (fat), given that these olives can reach 12 grams of weight (0.42 oz). This vigorous, slender tree is mostly planted in the province of Seville and therefore its olives are known as Gordal Sevillana (there are similar trees in Granada and Hellín, where the Gordal of Granada, a little smaller is produced, as well as the Gordal of Hellín, even smaller than the latter and used also for olive oil).
The Gordal Sevillana is exclusively used as a table olive and it’s always present in a “tapas” (small portions) menu, often stuffed with red peppers, almonds, cheese or anchovies (their large size lends itself to it).
Back in the time of the Roman Empire, in the current Spanish city of Cadiz, there was a remarkable agronomist, Lucius Columella. With great intuition, Columella understood that large, fleshy olives would do better as table olives and the smaller ones would be better used for olive oil. Perhaps at that time, the more obvious characteristics led to this conclusion. In the case of table olives, the bigger ones offer more pulp. In the case of olive oil, the small ones offer higher yields.
Then, as we understand today, there are genetics that also favor this selection. Larger olives are not only higher in water content and lower in oil content (which actually favor fermentation and therefore, curing). They’re also higher in sugars and very importantly, lower in polyphenols. When olive oil is made from them, it presents serious issues of high risks of potential fermentations between harvest and milling, and the olive oil is inevitably very unstable.
In a study made in Jaen, Spain by experts Marino Uceda and Maria Paz Aguilera among others, the cultivar got the lowest rank in terms of oxidative stability and it was among the three lowest in terms of polyphenol count.
In California, the Gordal Sevillana is called Sevillano. It’s been a traditional cultivar for the table olive industry. Since there are many Sevillano trees, some producers have been making olive oil as well.
The problem with that is not only the very low yield (sometimes barely 5-8 gallons out of a ton of olives, average 15) that makes this olive oil very expensive.
The main problem is that is very difficult to make extra virgin olive oil with it. Sevillano is so unprotected (by its lack of phenols) that it suffers fermentations easily. Its skin also bruises easily, making it vulnerable to microbes and bacteria, and as soon as it’s is placed in a bin, a large amount of the olives is stressed under the weight and heat of the pile.
Most mills in California use hammermills to crush their olives. This system increases heat and produces a great deal of emulsion. The large amount of water and sugars in this cultivar makes things worse.
The result is almost always olive oils with an initial degree of fermentation and extremely short lived (they have degrees of a greasy mouthfeel–a sign of oxidation–in just a couple of months). They also have flashy odors of cooked greens (even the smell of the water after steaming green vegetables) and cooked leaves (cooked Swiss chard), that can pass for green notes, and often notes that appear when high temperatures are present in the milling: tropical fruits, ripe banana, cooked green beans, a buttery taste.
While it’s true that all the latter can please consumer tastes and some personal tastes, it does not belong to quality in olive oil. It’s truly difficult to produce Sevillano oils of good structure, clean perfumes, freshness and durability. In fact, in all these years, I never tasted one.
A bit of a debate still exists around this and there are several producers making Sevillano olive oils. And, in Californian competitions, Sevillanos are often awarded.
Perhaps running the ethyl and methyl esters tests, which measure fermentations even in their initial phases, will help us advance this discussion in the industry.
When used for table olives Sevillano can make a very good product instead. Given its fragility it’s recommended to cure it while is quite green and firm. When cured green, the nice color and large volume make it quite appealing. No wonder, in Italy it’s called “Bella di Spagna” (the Beautiful one from Spain). We cure Sevillano olives at Pacific Sun Farms, and we’re proud they’re served in some of the finest restaurants in California.
This is a nice recipe to marinate Sevillanos:
- 8 oz of Sevillano olives
- Juice of half orange
- Zest of a ¼ orange (make sure not to zest the pith, the white part of the orange skin)
- 1 teaspoon of grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon of chopped thyme
- 2 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. (For this purpose, Eva’s Blend is a good option. Proprietor’s Select and Tehama Blend will also do well, adding a bit of bitterness and green notes to the preparation.)
Mix all the ingredients and leave them two nights in the fridge. Serve at room temperature. Olives go better with beer or bitters than wine. If wine, a chilled rosé or a refreshing white.