Much like visiting TK Maxx in the depths of a hangover, ingesting food covered in flies feels like it might be a bad idea. It’s not a predicament one finds oneself in often, but I’m currently staring down a charcuterie spread aflutter with a small battalion of flies, weighing up how many on a triangle of manchego are safe for human consumption. We’re looking at a situation approaching full cheese coverage, but considering my extreme hunger, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

“We never used to have flies and eat outside in a t-shirt in October, but here we are,” says Eduard Pons. Described only moments before as ‘olive oil Jesus’, he is (you guessed it) a fourth-generation olive oil producer at Clos Pons and supplier to premium food brand Belazu. I’m sitting with him, eating lunch at a long wooden table before touring his olive groves in L'Albagés near Barcelona.

The sunny lunch terrace at Clos Pons nestled among the hills of Catalonia

The sun’s glow on my back, accompanied by a stunning spread of barbecued meats, is a welcome remedy to the discombobulating 3am wakeup involved in getting here. The fly swarms Eduard refers to are becoming a common feature of the increasingly warm autumn months in the region. And, while their dirty mitts all over my chorizo present short-term inconvenience, they are a symptom of a far more significant problem – climate change. It’s this atmospheric warming that’s putting the future of Spanish olive oil production in jeopardy.

Described moments before as ‘olive oil Jesus’, Eduard Pons is a fourth-generation producer

Recent heatwaves across southern Europe have inflicted successive bad harvests and shortages of olive oil. With the overall rise in the cost of living, it might go unnoticed. Still, shelf-edge prices have crept up a hefty 40.6% in the past year across Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, according to The Grocer’s analysis of Assosia data. As the world's largest producer and exporter of olive oil, both the future of Spain’s production and the future livelihoods of its producers are hanging in the balance. 

Eduard Pons

The issue of temperature plays a vital role in olive oil production, not only in terms of harvest quantity but also in oil quality. Eduard tells us that 26°C is the sweet spot. If it gets warmer, the olives become less stable, decreasing the fat quality inside them. For larger producers that focus on low price points, keeping to this temperature is not a priority, and they work between 40-60°C to increase yield and decrease extraction times. “It’s like a teabag,” says Eduard; “when the water is hot, the infusion goes faster, but higher temperature olive oil extraction means less flavour and quality.” For producers like Eduard, whose focus has always been on making the best quality olive oil and has been so for four generations prior, keeping olive oil production cool is everything.

Temperature plays a vital role in olive oil production in both quantity and quality

But temperature isn’t the only threat to the olive oil industry. Making good quality olive oil is expensive and time-consuming, so high-tech, industrial-scale fraud is rife. Adultered and even fake olive oil is widespread, to the extent that some 80% of olive oil is estimated to be mislabelled. Large brands are getting into legal hot water over dodgy suppliers, and people are even going to prison for it – including two Spanish men sentenced to two years for selling thousands of litres of sunflower oil mixed with olive that was branded as extra-virgin. Granted, fraudulent olive oil won’t kill you, but you want to know what you’re consuming. If you bought a Peroni to discover it was a blend of Carling and Fosters, you’d hardly be chuffed.

Funnily enough, not long ago, we couldn’t have cared less about these problems. We were once a nation of butter spreaders and lard melters. A country where olive oil was purchased at the pharmacy to remedy blocked ears; where voluntarily pouring oil over food was an appalling concept. But times have changed, and the United Kingdom is now the 10th biggest olive oil-consuming nation in the world, getting through 30 million litres a year, double that of a decade ago. Given the current state of affairs, it seems fuelling our unwavering appetite for this Mediterranean nectar, particularly if you’re hunting for the good stuff, isn’t as easy as it once seemed. In fact, the future of good-quality, single-origin olive oil that’s financially viable for both consumer and producer seems a little doomed. But noble chevaliers are tackling the problem, not least our ‘olive oil Jesus’. And he’s got a fix.

Catching olives with under-tree nets; Eduard Pons

To understand his solution to rising temperatures, we must go back to a time of extreme cold 15 years prior. We’re talking a bone-chilling -19°C in the region that blanketed the valley of Clos Pons in a metre of snow, killing 10,000 of Eduard’s olive trees. Such a devasting loss left him no choice but to build resilience. The solution? Plant a varietal garden to understand which species can better cope with increasingly hostile climate extremes. The name "garden" is perhaps a misnomer because mine certainly doesn’t look like this. Fuelled by a massive Pyrenees meltwater irrigation project, it comprises 250 varieties analysed regularly to understand yield, acidity, humidity and polyphenols – an antioxidant which aids in vitamin E absorption, and the latest olive oil health buzz.

The UK is now the 10th largest olive oil-consuming nation in the world

Going from 100 trees per hectare to 2,000 means we’re dealing with a lot more olives, and while it's nice to think a Spanish man sat on a wicker stool plucks your olives with his sun-weathered hands, it is no longer the case with good-quality olive oil. This, too, relates to the temperature predicament; there is a short window to extract the best quality olive oil, so handpicking isn’t going to cut it. Enter stage left: large mechanical harvesting machines. Shaking each plant like Shakira does her hips, they harvest a  mammoth four tonnes of olives per hectare at five cents per kilo and can finish a job over the course of several weeks. Compared to handpicking, which costs 50 cents per kilo and takes around five months to complete, the data speaks for itself.

Thousands of olive being poured through grates before the oil extraction process
Modern harvesters can gather four tonnes of olives per hectare at five cents per kilo

From here, it’s a race against the clock. From the moment the olives are plucked, they begin to oxidate and ferment so, much like blue lighting a cardiac arrest to A&E, we’ve got to get them to the mill pronto if we want to extract good quality oil. The mill in question has been in operation since this September and is the first and only of its kind to exist. Much like the process of picking, the romantic vision of a stone-pressed mill crushing the olives is no longer apt. This mill resembles a Willy Wonka-esque system of metal tubes, conveyor belts, shoots and gauges. Step foot into the mill, and you feel like you’re witnessing a NASA rocket launch. There’s a control room with a throng of headphone-wearing people nervously looking at screens and clipboards, blinking lights and buttons, and an industrial thrum so loud we’ve shoved earplugs deep into our ear canals.

Belazu's stainless steel olive oil tanks in Spain

To explain the intricacies of how trailblazing and revolutionary this mill is would require a few more hundred pages, but what’s important to understand is that its technology enables you to extract the best quality olive oil in a temperature-controlled setting, produce large volumes of it, and do this at a rapid pace. It’s this innovation that makes the production of good quality olive oil on a large scale viable for the first time – while remaining sustainable, organic, single-origin and safeguarded from fraud.

But how does it taste? We sit down to sample the vivid green liquid in a stone building that houses the original Clos Pons mill. Four blue glasses sit before me, containing a small glug of olive oil made from Arbequina, Lecciana, Koroneiki and  Arbosana olives. We taste the oil as you would a wine, edging our noses into the glass before tipping it onto our tongues. I foolishly make the mistake of knocking it straight to the back of my throat, and much like when you’re overzealous with the wasabi, theatrically splutter from the oil's piquant and peppery flavour. Eyes glazed with tears, I fight the embarrassment and focus on the flavour. It’s like nothing I’ve tried before – fragrant, bright and vegetal. The olive oil is the main character, and everything it marinates, dresses, drizzles and coats is the understudy.

Four blue glasses sit before me, each containing a small glug of olive oil

After dinner, Eduard discloses the results of the olive oil analysis from the lab to reveal the batch we’ve just consumed contains a whopping 500mg/kg of polyphenols. For context, olive oil that’s high-phenolic contains around 250 mg/kg, so this is a triumph. There’s a certain irony to that moment because what initially felt like the gluttonous consumption of straight olive oil seemingly morphed into a health kick, or, at the very least, good news for my Vitamin E levels. “I’m going to drink two glasses of wine tonight,” Eduard finishes. Considering he’s revolutionised his olive oil-making process, it seems an almost modest celebration.

The huge range of olive oils produced at Clos Pons

Upon returning home from Spain, the cruel hand baggage liquid restrictions mean I can’t smuggle this Mediterranean crack back unless I decide to forgo my pots of moisturiser and toothpaste and fill them with oil (which isn’t totally out of the question). Arriving home empty-handed, I’m confronted by the bottle of Asda olive pomace blend that sits on my kitchen counter. To be honest, I’m unsure how to let it know that I’ve been having a 36-hour affair, and I’ve met someone else. I’m leaving it for the Belazu cold-extracted, single-varietal Arbequina olive oil, and there’s no turning back.

Adultery aside, I’m stunned by the sheer innovation achieved in Eduard's dedication to producing the best olive oil. From the moment the olives are grown to the final extraction, this is a meticulous and complex process that could only be conceived of by someone with a deep love for the stuff. The climate crisis, combined with profit-hungry corner-cutting tactics from manufacturers, means that without producers like Eduard and brands that care about provenance and quality, the future of this kitchen staple seems as bleak as my bottle of Asda pomace blend. It’s easy to forget good olive oil is the cook's most powerful comrade, the champagne of the pantry, and not something to be taken for granted. Like Eduard and his predecessors, we must treat it with the respect it deserves.