In the Plain of Spain, an OU Rabbinic Consultant Seeks Out Olives and Other Kosher Products

Spain – the very name evokes images of sunny Mediterranean beaches, Flamenco dancing and bull fighting. For the OU, Spain evokes images of artichokes, olives, fish and a plethora of other kosher food products. Nearly 50 Spanish enterprises turn to us for their kosher certification. The OU has several dedicated field representatives who work in Spain. For one, Rabbi Michael Hoffman of Israel, Spain is practically a full time job.

Spain is a diverse country with abundant agricultural resources and products. Much of the countryside – from Madrid in the center to Seville in the South and along the eastern Mediterranean coast is blanketed in olive orchards.

The result of both the quantity and quality of Spain’s olives is that Spain is dominant in both the table olive and olive oil industries. The vast majority of the green table olives consumed by kosher consumers come from Spain, packed by a number of fine companies, including Angel Camacho, Internacional Olivarera, Aceitunas Guadalquivir, Mission Olives and many more. Their products come in many varieties and brand names. While most Spanish olives sold in the United States are the familiar green pimiento stuffed variety, there is an increasing market for specialties long popular in Spain and other parts of the world – including orange, lemon, nut and fish stuffed olives.

So what, one might ask, could be not kosher about olives? More than you might expect! While olives themselves are intrinsically kosher, there are many steps between the olive tree and your table. These kosher sensitivities enter at many levels of production. During fermentation, companies may add non-kosher or dairy enzymes to enhance or control the process. Various acidulants – including lactic and citric acid are common – all of which require proper kosher certification. The most sensitive area is the stuffing.

As mentioned above many companies stuff olives with diverse ingredients, including anchovies, tuna and blue cheese. These are generally not kosher, so it is critical that careful controls are in place to keep everything separate. Other varieties that one would expect to be automatically kosher – such as pimiento or orange – may well not be. In fact, most olive stuffings are a composite paste with several ingredients including gums and flavors, not pieces of actual fruit or vegetable. It is not uncommon for these to be made on equipment shared with non-kosher production. To ensure the kosher status of these items, the OU also certifies specialty stuffing producers like Rellenos del Sur near Seville.

Of course, where there are olives, there is olive oil and Spain produces some of the world’s finest! Olive oil is much like wine. Each region and orchard has distinct flavor characteristics. There are several common grades of olive oil. Extra Virgin oil is the first cold pressing of the olive. This is the lowest acid oil and considered the best. But it is also very flavorful and relatively expensive, with some specialty varietals selling for upwards of $50 per liter in high end boutiques. Most companies also make lower cost blended extra virgin oils. The kosher concerns here are minimal. They include making certain the company cleans the equipment well after running other items such as vinegar, and monitoring for additives.

At the other end of the olive oil spectrum are the blander and lighter refined and pomace oils. Because they are refined, these are much more kosher sensitive. Oil refineries may be both animal and vegetable or may produce value added products such as margarines and dressings. It is therefore critical that a careful watch is maintained to assure OU kosher standards. For example, Aceites y Salsas Muela, near Cordoba, has worked closely with the OU to ensure that its kosher oils are not contaminated by its other product lines – including vinegars, mayonnaise, dressings and non-kosher cooking oils.

My trip focused primarily on artichokes and wine. The main artichoke growing region is around Murcia near Alicante. Alicante – on the Costa Blanca — is a lovely place to set up “camp” for work in the region. This region is famous for artichokes, peppers and citrus. While the main work we engaged in was review of insect infestation in artichokes, we also took time to visit Juver Alimentacion – a large OU certified juice manufacturer as well as JR Sabater, a vinegar manufacturing facility.

This trip was part of a worldwide review of insect infestation in artichokes to determine if the OU can continue certifying this delicacy on a regular basis. Rabbi Hoffman and I visited three facilities long associated with OU kosher – Conservas Alguazas, Conservas El Raal, and Manuel Mateo Candel and spent many hours carefully reviewing incoming loads, washing procedures and final product. Each company has invested significant resources in specialized machinery and processing specifically aimed at eliminating insects from their products. In every case, significant reductions were achieved.

Unfortunately, despite the industry’s efforts to minimize insect infestation – the OU has concluded that it is impossible to certify the leafy parts of artichokes (hearts and quarters), on a regular basis. Insects are strictly forbidden by kosher law. As modern agriculture moves away from heavy pesticide use and towards organic methods, the presence of insects increases, as does the need for vigilance by kosher certifiers and consumers. As one can imagine, it is one thing to check one artichoke during dinner. Verifying that an entire canning run meets standards is another matter entirely.

Artichokes have many layers and offer many hiding places. The further into the choke one proceeds (the delicate center area is the heart), the harder it is to remove unwanted visitors. We have therefore concluded that the only way leafy artichoke products can be certified is by special production. In this scenario, the OU would send specially trained rabbis to first verify that the incoming crop has low infestation. They would then closely monitor the washing and finished product to ensure that the end result meets our strict Jewish legal requirements. Past research suggests that in certain seasons and conditions a clean product is attainable. At the very bottom of the choke (above the stem) is a solid piece. The OU continues to certify these “bottoms” as they do not harbor insects.

At the end of two intense 15-hour days in and around Alicante, I headed north to review wineries and some other major manufacturers in the Barcelona area. Some of the highlights included visiting La Morella – a producer of high end roasted nuts, nut products and pralines for confectionery and getting to see one of the main plants of Aceites Borges – a major player in the international olive oil and snack sectors.

Spain is rightfully famous for its wines and Catalonian Spanish wine country is lauded for its beauty. This hilly region has the perfect climate for wine production and the OU is proud to be involved with several wineries in the area, including the world famous Capcanes winery near the Montsant Natural Park west of Tarragona and Castillo Perelada winery in Vilafranca del Penedes. Both vineyards have produced top quality kosher wines for the past several years.

With wine, much more than the ingredients have to be kosher. Rabbis must control all aspects of the manufacture from crushing through bottling. Because wine is closely associated with religious practices, both ancient and modern, there are great sensitivities. The Rabbis who manage the day-to-day operations are local and often spend days or even weeks at the wineries to ensure that everything is in order.

Spain is famous for its beauty, its friendly people and its top quality food products. I am proud to be involved with so many of the OU’s accounts in Spain and am happy to have this opportunity to share a bit of what goes on behind the Union symbol there.