Ronda in southern Andalucía is world-renown for its stunning views, fascinating past, and for the famous artists who have come here to write and paint throughout history. What Ronda is not known for is cutting-edge architecture, innovative global marketing, forward thinking ecological production, and least of all, world famous designers. It might therefore come as a surprise to some that merely a couple of kilometres outside our town-centre lies Spain’s most progressive and unique olive oil production and Oleo Tourism facility – LA Organic Experience.
Imagine the chatter in our little town some years back when a local company engaged none other than Philippe Starck to design their olive oil bottles! At that point the words ‘organic’ and ‘cutting edge’ were rarely seen together, certainly not here in rural Andalucía. Yet LA Organic went against the current, creating a line of organic olive oils using Starck’s vanguard product designs. I have been an admirer of his ever since I got his space age lemon press thirty years ago. For those do not know of him, Philippe Starck is a French designer, inventor and architect with 10,000 creations to his name, ranging from cooking tools to wind turbines. For some rondeños, many of whom make their own oil or buy magnum bottles directly from the mill, hiring a celebrity designer for such a ‘basic’ task must have been seen as extremely extravagant or even foolish. However, for the creators of LA Organic Experience, it was time to give the national industry of Spain the attention it deserves.
Olives have grown on the Iberian Peninsula for millennia. The Romans started mass-producing and exporting millions of litres of Spanish olive oil. Later, the Arabs improved on the production process and expanded its uses, and while they were exiled from Spain 5 centuries ago, the Arab name for oil, aceite, still remains.
Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil accounting for more than 50% of the current global production, and most is produced right here in Andalucía. It is therefore vital for the economy to scrutinize and at times rethink its production and marketing process. In contrast to Italy which has a reputation for supreme quality and design, made in Spain is still often regarded as ‘cheap and cheery’ by international consumers. LA Organic Experience aims to change this perception.
To know more about the Company, I made an appointment with the General Director, Santiago Muguiro. Coming to meet me straight from the olive fields, it immediately became clear that running this Oleo Tourism facility is no desk job. Santiago is young, passionate and full of ideas. “I come from a wine background” he tells me, adding that his family are the proprietors of the venerable Marqués de Riscal winery. “Like some Rioja vineyards have done with wine, we want to educate the public and become pioneers of olive oil tourism in Spain,” he says. Whereas Marqués de Riscal engaged architect Frank Gehry to create a luxury hotel for wine lovers, LA Organics partnered up with Starck to create the branding, packaging and the landscape of LA Organic Experience.
Just to clarify, the name has nothing to do with Los Angeles. It refers to La Amarilla, a Ronda farm owned by the Gómez de Baeza family, located in an area where nuns produced olive oil for centuries. In 1990 the family decided to re-establish the Sisters’ tradition and founded LA Organic. The Company expanded to their present location due to increasing demand for their premium oil. With investments from six international visionaries like Starch and wine expert Michel Rolland, LA Organic Experience now covers 25 hectares with 9000 olive trees of 20 varieties. The fully organic crop is planted with variable spacing to demonstrate the difference between traditional and new intensive farming methods. The latter area is composed of the fast-growing Oliana olive, which future visitors will be able to harvest and bottle themselves as part of the Experience.
But LA Organic goes far beyond oil. It is a journey that combines culture, nature and gastronomy. The Experience starts immediately as one enters the property through industrial design gates. The iconic symbol of Mediterranean gastronomy is everywhere, including the window in the guard booth in the shape of an olive.
The parking lot also has a Starck signature – a vast terra-cotta-coloured plaza framed by rust and stone walls with massive artistic photographs. In fact, everything including a bespoke adjacent hotel has a touch of the master, whose designs tend to be subversive, ethical, ecological, political, and last but not least, humorous.
Santiago offers to bring me on their guided tour, which starts and ends in a brightly painted warehouse where olive tasting and mill demonstration take place. From here we begin a one-kilometre route lined by newly planted poplars and fragrant lavender bushes. Our first stop is an Arab-inspired organic vegetable and herb garden designed by Navarra horticulturist Floren Domezáin.
The tour continues past fields of olives, a shallow resting pool surrounded by orange trees, an austere 19th Century chapel, as well as a stunning plaza of century old olive trees framing the footprint of where once an old farmhouse stood.
Since olives and wine go hand in hand, the property also includes a sloped hill of a thousand grapevines of the Pinot Noir variety, perfectly suited for growing at these altitudes (approx. 800 meters over sea level). The vines are planted in terraces, thus recapturing a tradition the Romans established here 2000 years ago. With internationally acclaimed oenologist Michel Rolland at the forefront of this particular project, visitors should be able to enjoy world class LA Organic wine in a couple of years’ time.
En route, we pass several architectonic elements called the Six Surprises by Starck. For me however, the surprise of LA Organic Experience is the overall effect. With outmost attention to detail and deep respect for the natural surroundings, the Company has managed to create an unforgettable living tour – a visual, sensory and olfactory experience where something as small as an olive is the grand protagonist.
What we see today is only the tip of the innovative iceberg. Future plans include a sustainable bottling and labelling plant and the first-ever designer organic olive mill. Another Starck invention, La Almazara olive press and museum will be a high quality production facility with cutting edge technology dedicated to ecological agriculture and organic olive oil production. Wherever the future takes them, the LA Organic team is on the right track with their oil already available in 25 countries.
In the meantime, I wonder if the creator of the emblematic Alessi lemon press will become the inventor of an avant-garde design home olive press? What do you say, Philippe?
For more information, please go to www.laexperience.net