We have a mystery from the middle-ages to explore, one that has grown into a bountiful story – a story, I humbly suggest, that can be one of the foundations of Catalan identity.
I am drawn to head north again, out of the gorges and mountain drama of the Priorat and up onto the vast landscape of southern Lleida, those close yet, for too long, distant rolling plains of history and mystery.
A few years back I would regularly crest the ridge and suddenly feel that space, and see the city of Lleida in the pastel distance, a galleon riding the swell on a vast sea of ochre and green.
But I failed to stop and breathe. I was teaching at a business school beside the River Segre, rudely bustling in and out of the province with no time for pleasantries. I did not – I still do not – know much about it at all. I am more familiar with the mountainous north; shameful given that I have been a neighbour for sixteen years.
So we will go this year, slowly. And there is somewhere in particular we desperately want to visit, to acknowledge, to be able to speak of with certainty; to feel. It is the community of Arbeca, home to 2400 people, set among the groves of Les Garrigues.
Those would be arbequina olive groves, of course, for it is this modest place that gives that extraordinary fruit its name – the juice of which has, in no small part, allowed me permanence and a truly remarkable sense of place and belonging.
A writer without a name that trips off the tongue usually has more than one hat. To spend a year on a book or a screenplay with no certainty of income requires ... um ... a little dexterity and boundless faith, not least from your family. So with one hand I put pen to paper (metaphorically) and with the other I work with my partner Maggie cultivating olives and our small export business.
We supply clients in Britain and Canada, and this year our brand, Mother's Garden, will begin to export Priorat arbequina olive oil to America.
So we need and want to go to Arbeca. It will be a homage, and we hope to find out more about the roots of this remarkable little tree that in so many ways is synonymous with this nation – it may be small, but it is incredibly hardy, fruitful, wise and beautiful. And I want answers. Maybe one of you can help.
Did one of the Dukes of Medinaceli bring this indomitable tree with small round olives back from the Holy Lands, and if so which Duke and when exactly? We have a mystery from the middle-ages to explore, one that has grown into a bountiful story – a story, I humbly suggest, that can be one of the foundations of Catalan identity. I take both my hats off to the Catalan cooperatives and independent growers of this superfood who endlessly strive.
The qualities of premium, fresh Catalan arbequina extra virgin olive oil, imbued with the goodness of these lands, are being appreciated more and more around the world – the juice of a little fruit with subtle and delicate complexity and a bright, grassy, fresh aroma. It is not a thumping olive oil, but with outstanding qualities of its own, with the gift of lifting not masking the flavours of companion foods. I could go on. I am inclined to, I admit, but I'm out of space.
We can't wait, though, to take up a 2017 invitation to lead a tasting in Washington DC, a capital that might, by then, be ready for some honest nourishment.