La Tienda Founder Don Harris Conducts a Tasting of Spanish Olive Oils

Daily Press


April 22, 2011

David Nicholson

Raising the small blue cup, Don Harris swirls the green-gold liquid inside, smells its contents and takes a sip.

Smooth with a peppery finish, he pronounces to the 14 foodies gathered for one of La Tienda's olive oil tasting classes. Each participant follows his lead and describes in their own words what they smell and taste.

Like wines that reflect the characteristics of different varietals, Spanish olive oils reflect the individual qualities of the many varieties of olives found there. There are 262 different kinds of olives grown in Spain, says Harris, and La Tienda carries about a dozen different oils.

"Spain produces more olive oil than any other country," says Harris. "A lot of it is put in tankers and shipped to Italy."

For more than 40 years, Harris and his family have been visiting Spain and sampling its food products. In 1996, he founded La Tienda, an online business that sells hams, sausages, cheeses and other artisan foods imported from the country. More recently he opened a retail shop and café by the same name in Williamsburg, Va., where he lives.

Partly for education and partly to increase sales in his store, Harris and his crew hold regular tasting classes to introduce people to Spanish products. Americans probably buy most of their olive oil in supermarkets, he says, and "buying the supermarket version is like buying jug wine."

In Spain, quality wines, cured hams and olive oils are marked with the phrase "Denominación de Origen," which guarantees that they come from a particular region. Oils can be from a single type of olive or a blend that balances the best qualities in each, says Harris. The oil is frequently used as a preservative in sardines, tuna and cheeses packed and sold in jars and tins. Some are infused with mushrooms or truffles.

In La Tienda's catalog, Harris describes four general taste categories that cover the flavors of most oils:

Mild and buttery — These are subtle oils, good for mild dishes such as a simple fish or salad dressing. They tend to be light golden-green.

Fruity and spicy — You can smell the herbs in these green oils. They are delicious with cooked vegetables and seafood.

Fruity and peppery — These will get your attention with a long peppery finish. Their assertive flavors are good companions with sandwich fillings or as a drizzle on garlicky dishes such as pastas or grilled meats. They are often dark green-gold.

Full-bodied and earthy — Like a big wine, these are big olive oils. Rich mouth feel with a full flavor characterize these golden oils.

Senorio de Vizcantar Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the most popular one he sells, is a blend of the juice from three olives: picual, which provides a peppery, astringent taste; picudo, which is light and sweet; and hojiblanca, which has a woodsy character and a sweet aftertaste. This oil is warm and fruity, perfect for salads or dipping in bread, says the La Tienda website.

Juice from the arbequina olive makes an olive oil that's popular with Americans, Harris tells his class, because it's buttery with a slightly peppery finish.

In addition to the Senorio de Vizcantar, Harris introduced the class to these olive oils:

Wild Extra Virgin Olive Oil by "Can Solivera" — A blend of buttery, fruity arbequina and peppery empeltre olives, this oil is pressed in a traditional method used as far back as the Middle Ages.

"First Day of Harvest" Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil by Castillo de Canena — bright green, grassy and fruity.

"First Early Royal" Extra Virgin Olive Oil by Castillo de Canena — Made from an olive that's almost extinct, this oil is very peppery.

Picual Extra Virgin Olive Oil by Castillo de Canena — Peppery and astringent taste that produces a bite at the back of the throat.

Ybarra "Intenso" Extra Virgin Olive Oil — A blend of picual and hojiblanca olive juices, this oil is sweeter and more aromatic.

Harris got his first taste of Spain in the mid-1960s when he was a Navy chaplain serving aboard a destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea. Later he and his young family were stationed at Rota, Spain, on the Bay of Cadiz, and they moved into a nearby town, El Puerto de Santa Maria, to be near the regional foods and the Andalusian wine country. He founded La Tienda after retiring from the Chaplain Corps.

The Williamsburg area is home to retired military officers and their wives, who have lived in many parts of the world and who attend Harris' classes.

"We heard about La Tienda when we lived in Northern Virginia," says Linda Dennis. "We both cook and we've traveled to Barcelona and Morocco. We lived in Italy for a year and a half, so we learned to enjoy different cuisines."

In addition to its wines and foods, Spain has captivated Harris because of its people.

"In Spain, there are very strong families where they cherish their children," he says. "And these kids grow up confidant.

"It's a very healthy, affirming way of life. And the food becomes a medium for warmth and personal interchange."

Olive facts from La Tienda

Olives are harvested by knocking the olive trees with long sticks. The fruit falls on nets that have been spread around the base of the tree.

In ancient times, olive oil was extracted by pressing the olive mash between round layers made then of esparto grass. Today the oil is separated by centrifuge methods.

Wine which is fermented, gets better with age. Olive Oil is a fruit juice and after two years, it loses its flavor.

Store oils in a cool, dark place, but not in the refrigerator where it will congeal.

For more information and to purchase products, go online to

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