Season 1 Episode 2

Maria José San Román

This Week's Guest:

Maria José San Román

Spanish Chef and Restaurateur

Curious and innovative, renowned Spanish chef Maria San Román dedicates a great part of her time to investigating products that are native to Spanish gastronomy such as saffron, a product on which she is considered an international expert. She is a champion of the qualities of extra virgin olive oils, involved in the ‘OliveToLive’ project which promotes a dispenser that conserves the qualities of EVOOs in premium condition.

Together with her husband José Perramón, they are proprietors of the Grupo Gourmet Alicante, a gastronomic project founded in 1975 which has continuously evolved, garnering a successful role in Alicante’s hospitality offering. The Monastrell restaurant has received a Michelin star.

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Curtis CordMaria José, welcome.

Maria José San RománHello Curtis.

Curtis CordSo for some time now, I think you said ever since you met Brígida Jiménez Herrera, who we both know is one of the most accomplished olive oil sensory experts in the world. It was then that you began to develop an understanding of olive oil and how to use it in your kitchens. Is that right?

Maria José San RománYes, you are very right. I was happy to meet her. It was about ten years ago because they want me to talk about olive oil or be an olive oil chef and I really thought that at that time I knew quite a lot about olive oil. But I wasn’t right. She put me on the way for sure.

Curtis CordI have listened to big time chefs repeat some of the same misinformation for years that you shouldn’t cook with extra virgin for example. And they describe the best olive oils using characteristics like smooth or silky, I’ve heard for example. If chefs don’t take the time to learn about such an important and beneficial food, is there any hope that consumers will ever get it?

Maria José San RománOh yes they will, because they don’t know about what they are talking. When they are not concerned with it because they never use the right one. I was so impressed in Paris last month at La Grande Épicerie, I went to the olive oil department and most of them were flavored olive oil. Cinnamon, lemon peel, you know what I’m talking about and I thought, “What about Olive Oil? Where is it?” It wasn’t not even ten percent of their show, was the real one. So, what is the point of making such a beautiful product with varietals and then mixing with lemon, or cinnamon or so many things …smoke… I don’t believe in that but the society is going there and we have to do a lot of work to prevent that they never discover the real one.

Curtis CordYou hang out with a lot of very important chefs, especially in Spain, which happens to be I think these days the center of the culinary world it seems. How many of the chefs that you communicate with do you think understand olive oil and are using it for its full potential?

Maria José San RománNot many. I am so sorry to say that but maybe I get more people listening outside of Spain because you know when your good on something when you have something very near you don’t care. I don’t know when you have something since ever, you think you know the product you don’t listen if I talk to people in Norway about olive oil they will open their ears and they will absolutely believe in every single word I said about olive oil but a Spanish chef they are tough on olive oil, they are using, but they are not getting as much potential as I do in my kitchen.

Curtis CordBecause they are so familiar with it.

Maria José San RománThey are so familiar with it. They are happy with what they have, they don’t think they need to know more. That is the problem.

Curtis CordAnd in places where they are not making olive oil themselves and where this is a new product that they are trying, their ears are more open you say?

Maria José San RománOf course they are crazy. I have a Stuart Cameron and he is a best chef in Canada this year he is so crazy about olive oil he is as crazy as I am, but he is very much concerned about freshness, you know he would love to have a every six months come in the new oil from the other part of the world so he is really concerned he appreciate the flavors, he knows a lot, and he travels to see me to know more about it. He is very much interested in the product. I’m talking about Camaron but I could say London I know I have more success in non-producer countries of course yes.

Curtis CordMaria José, are cooking schools to blame? Are you seeing olive oil programs in culinary schools?

Maria José San RománNot as much as I would like to. Absolutely but you are talking to the most excellent chef in olive oil world. There must be many many many unknown chefs that really use the olive oil the way I do, but in the top ones that are talking about this, they’re not concerned. I’m sorry for that.

Curtis CordAnd is there any outreach to the administration of culinary schools that you are aware of? Is anybody contacting the culinary schools to introduce such programs? It is after all a very important food?

Maria José San RománOh yes of course they are continuously doing — I’m going to Madrid on Tuesday, to talk about this. I was in in Ibiza a month ago also which I was very much concerned about my speech. About the qualities of olive oil because they are starting to grow olive oil after they left the production for so many years, and now they want to take it back because they don’t want to be a discotheque island they want to be know also for their gastronomy. So some very good producers are starting to make olive oil again and they really want to make it good if not just normal agricultural people, but they are rich people investing lot of money on going back to their roots and they are really concerned, they are making really good olive oil and they appreciate quality and they appreciate when I talk to them about how good it could be if it was good. So, I think it will come. I know we don’t have the best present but I know we have a future for sure.

Curtis CordAnd what about consumers in Spain which after all produces almost half of the worlds olive oil. How many people for example, know to pair certain varieties with foods to bring out the best in their dishes?

Maria José San RománWell I think particular people, private people are more interested than professionals. Because professionals are only thinking sometimes they only think of the cost. And a Spanish olive oil can be very cheap and very good quality but when you increase little bit of quality it can be a little bit more expensive which is the same case of saffron. Everybody talking about how expensive it is, but they cannot see how many benefits they get out of it.

Curtis CordYeah lets talk about saffron for a minute. I know it’s one of your other passions and what is it about saffron which caught your attention?

Maria José San RománWell because it’s again another product that is in our gastronomy since ever. We were the number one producers in the world many many years ago and it was in all the recipes before the fifteenth century. All the Spanish recipes had a little bit of saffron. And why was it like this? It’s because it was in an enhancer of the other flavors of the food but after I think it was after the Spanish war where we were a really poor country and people stopped buying expensive goods like saffron and they changed it into artificial coloring.
But again it’s a lot of … there’s not much knowledge about how to use it … people think it’s expensive which is not true for sure and they don’t know how to measure. So what I started working out was how to measure saffron which was a big goal because there was pinch, a few threads, some people even say three threads, five threads, which is difficult to count if you want to make soup for a hundred. So I thought it was better to dissolve grams in water making an infusion, that’s what I do, and then you can dissolve one gram of saffron, easy to buy, in two hundred and fifty milliliters of water and you have to infuse for four hours at sixty five degrees celsius. And that’s the saffron I have in my kitchen, I don’t have threads, I only have this liquid and I use it for half of the things I do in my restaurant. I always have a little bit of saffron and when you try the dish with or without it makes a big difference. So why not use the saffron then you can add saffron to the name of your recipe, which is amazing.

Curtis CordWhat does it do to dishes?

Maria José San RománI think it enhances the flavors. It’s like salt and pepper. You know it comes up, many things that you didn’t realize they were there, they come up.

Curtis CordSo it’s not like a layer of a different flavor on top of the dish but, in fact it, like extra virgin olive oil, it brings out the best flavors in the foods.

Maria José San RománThat’s right! You are very right. It enhances. It’s got its own flavor but it’s a flavor that for a European or maybe Mediterranean gastronomy means good. I mean when we smell saffron, everybody thinks “Oh it’s yummy, it’s good it’s mommy’s food or grandma’s food.” So, why not use saffron continuously. Apparently it’s very good for blood circulation and it’s for so many years it’s been with us, and it’s not something that grows naturally. You have to plant it ever year or every ten years. It doesn’t grow wild. It means in a way it’s part of our culture and is a need for the body probably.

Curtis CordHave you ever tried making a saffron olive oil infusion?

Maria José San RománOh, no, when I make saffron infusion, first I clean the oil because I don’t want to mix the flavors. It doesn’t play. You know saffron, doesn’t get the color in there. It’s not the lipid solution so it only gives flavor. So again, what is the point in making olive oil with already a very important flavor with a new one? I prefer to use to clean you know you can clean flavors, the oil you use, and then I infuse the saffron, to have just saffron and oil. I don’t think I need the olive oil as an extra.

Curtis CordWhen your customers, in Monastrell for example, when they see the elaborate system — the “Olive To Live” system that you use to preserve and serve your select extra virgin olive oils, what is there reaction to that when they see that?

Maria José San RománOh, I mean for me, I’m so glad to have this tool because this is an added value to the restaurant. If I explain to them at the table about the olive oils and I just tell them they are kept in the Olive To Live, they want to stand up and they want to come and they take pictures and they get crazy, I mean they love to know about this because it is so unique.

Curtis CordOur listeners might not know that the Olive To Live is a storage device really which keeps a number of different extra virgin olive oils at a very specific temperature and I believe with inert gas, and it holds the oil in a perfect environment until it is used, until the moment it is used, and it is called the Olive To Live system I know that you have been working for years with Paolo Pasquali on this program.

Maria José San RománActually, I have four Olive To Lives in my restaurant. I have four restaurants, and I have one in each of them and you know what, some people they come, when I want to show the container they think I’m making the olive oil there.

Curtis CordRight.

Maria José San RománSo, yes imagine how far some people are from our world. No idea.

Curtis CordNo idea.

Maria José San RománShell I tell you a funny story?

Curtis CordPlease

Maria José San RománI’m not going to talk about the name of the people, but a very important man in your country — last month I was in New York I will only say he was in New York okay?

Curtis CordYes.

Maria José San RománHe said he is making food with “olive oil tears.” You know tears coming from your eyes?

Curtis CordYeah.

Maria José San RománOkay lágrimas in Spanish — lágrimas. And I said “Oh, what olive oil is this?”
“Oh you know when they pick the olive oil they put them all together in a place and the first dripping of the olives.”

Curtis CordOh no.

Maria José San RománThey put it in a bottle and it’s called tears olive oil.

Curtis CordWhen in fact that’s the fermentation which is happening.

Maria José San RománOh yes, for example I mean, absolutely no idea about what he was talking about and he’s a top person, I mean he is in the gastronomy world.

Curtis CordWe need a name.

Maria José San RománNo, no I would never do that. I will never do that, I knew he was.

Curtis CordHe’s a New Yorker. It can be only one of eight million people but…

Maria José San RománNo but it is a very reputated one, so I would never say the name, but for him it was an honor to be with me and, actually he is coming to visit me to learn more about it. He was so excited when I explained how the olives were picked. How many kilos they need, they have to ground, they have to beat, only after you beating you get the olive oil and but of course I explained to him everything, because I was learning from him about something that he really makes very well but olive oil was undiscovered for him until now.

Curtis CordAnd those Olive to Live systems are through out the world for example the Culinary Institute of America has one on their campus. Which oils do you currently have in your system now?

Maria José San RománWell now I just received the first, the new Picual from Oro Bailen from olive, which I must say is one that are really making every year same same same quality — it’s a very good bet and it just arrived today. People get crazy because they can see the other two that didn’t come yet — the new ones. I have a Cornicarbra and I have Arbequina of course because you always need to have an Arbequina — it is the most familiar for people who don’t have any idea about olive oil. They start on loving Arbequina but I’m changing during the year. I could have Hojiblanca and Picudo. I love Picudo too, it’s a very tasty one and…

Curtis CordWhich foods do you put a Picudo on?

Maria José San RománTomato sauce! Tomato sauce is so important. If you make the tomato sauce with five different ones, you can appreciate immediately the Picudo is the best one.

Curtis CordAnd you can taste the flavor of the Picudo even after cooking the sauce? Because I always had the idea that heat evaporates the flavors to a great degree.

Maria José San RománOh, I make my tomato sauce with, first I cook the tomatoes and when they are really done I pat into a sieve, and it is the moment when I add the olive oil.

Curtis CordOh.

Maria José San RománThis preserves a lot of flavor but I think it’s a pairing of molecular flavors of the Picudo and tomato — they absolutely play well together.

Curtis CordBut it doesn’t take much heat to, make the flavors of a nice extra virgin go away. Isn’t that true?

Maria José San RománWell it goes away and the best results are always in cold for sure. That’s for sure but what about if you make garlic prawns with Arbequina or Picual — it makes such a huge difference. We are talking about frying, but the taste is so different, so different. And for us in Spain I would never use Arbequina of course, to make garlic prawns, never. And the difference is amazing with Picual.

Curtis CordIn New York, I listened to you describe how you deep fry potatoes in extra virgin olive oil and how delicious french fries can be. I know what you mean because on a trip to Crete I was treated to fresh local potatoes deep fried in Koroneike olive oil over an open camp fire and it was delicious and I now do that all the time. Of course…

Maria José San RománYou should try them in Hojiblanca or Picual because I think Koroneike, as Arbequina for me, are too mild. You can fry it but olive oil won’t have real presence there but Picual and Hojiblanca together, they will do a fantastic blend for fried potatoes.

Curtis CordI have a lot of oil on hand of course, a lot of really good olive oil from around the world that I don’t have to pay for, but you said in fact that you can use the same oil three or four times and that it can actually economical.

Maria José San RománOf course, more than three and four times. Actually there is a tool for restaurants. I have a measure… something to measure when do I have to change the olive oil. The only thing I do every night is clean the olive oil. You can clean, you can filter the olive oil but the uses are… I can use it for five days in the restaurant and it will work perfectly. It really works and the results for me are better than with seeds, in all senses. But the bigger point is that olive oil doesn’t get into the product. If you deep fry fish as we do in the Spain and you take them out of the fryer and no extra oil on the plate, it’s clean.

Curtis CordI see.

Maria José San RománAbsolutely clean. And also the potatoes, they don’t get any fat on them.

Curtis CordInteresting.

Maria José San RománThat’s a big difference.

Curtis CordAnd before you received these delicious fresh oils in your system now, before you received those you had still last years oils and how did those taste?

Maria José San RománThey are very mild.

Curtis CordVery mild.

Maria José San RománAll of them very mild. Unfortunately people like them when they are mild. Because they have no… they don’t know there are good ones. I’m waiting like crazy and I do probably for the new ones but for people they say oh it’s so mild. If you are a beginner…

Curtis CordSo even the very best olive oils in the world, kept under the very best environment, they change over the course of the year?

Maria José San RománThey don’t get bad. They never get bad but they get milder. Mild, mild, mild. Not so fragrant, not so much taste no spicy no — picante? How do you say it?

Curtis CordSpicy.

Maria José San RománSpicy, okay. No more bitterness. All the bitterness is gone. All the spices gone. Just a little flavor very mild but you hardly recognize it. Original flavors of the Cornicabra or the Picudo even the Arbequina is gone.

Curtis CordWhen we first met in 2010 you and I met in Córdoba where I watched you make a presentation that I will never forget, a culinary presentation in front of a big crowd — it was quite a large event, and this was of course the Beyond Extra Virgin conference which does not happen any more.

Maria José San RománWhat a pity huh?

Maria José San RománYes.

Curtis CordIs the focus on olive oil quality, is this something that is still being sustained in Spain?

Maria José San RománOf course. So many people join in the quality now. You know as it happens to you, for me they are still sending me olive oil from all over Spain to taste and I get so much surprise about the quality. It’s getting so much better. It’s more producers getting more information about how to make the production because the olive trees are fantastic. We have the olive tree. There’s only the time of picking and the way of making and the tools to make it better, so many people are getting in this quality because there is not another way. You are in the high market, or you are in the low price. And if you are in the low price, you cannot leave out of it.

So people are taking the Oro Bailen, Masia el Altet… all the small producers making a small amount of very, very, very high quality. Marqués de Griñón also doing very very well. [inaudible 00:23:18] also now doing very good. Even Alejandro Sanz, the singer, who was doing a terrible olive oil, two years ago, and I spoke to him and I said “How could you do that and only make ten thousand liters. I mean, do it well. And now I know this year, he’s making an amazing olive oil too. So I think it’s a matter of short time because people are getting to know that, if they make it good, it’s a very big market in the world, and they can send olive oil to China, to Japan, to America. I mean the world is very big of non-producers of olive oil. So they’re getting to the high-quality production. I think this is increasing a lot in Spain.

Curtis CordOf course, it wasn’t too long ago when things were very different in Spain, and the focus was on yield and on quantity, rather than quality. But then there was a shift, and do you remember when that happened?

Maria José San RománQuite probably Beyond Extra Virgin was part of that. But it comes also with the gastronomy revolution in Spain. The people are very concerned about food and about gastronomy. And even while we were talking about chefs, because I am very thick of my rules, of course there are people using the good quality olive oils, But it’s not that they are so proud as I am. You know for me, I am always talking about that. They just use it as another ingredient and they’re not concerned. They don’t know that they are using such a jewel in the kitchen. So I think it’s coming with the revolution of the Spanish gastronomy around the world, it comes together.

Curtis CordYou wrote a cookbook for saffron not too long ago.

Maria José San RománI’ve got my book but it’s not published. Because I don’t have a publisher. Everything is ready to go into, I don’t know.. I say it will be an iBook probably.

Curtis CordI think what we need, even more than that, is a cookbook from Maria José San Román, on cooking with extra virgin olive oil.

Maria José San RománOkay, we can make it. I mean I’m ready to do that. I just need the publisher and I know Brigida will do that with me, with pleasure, she bill be a big go.

Curtis CordWell count me in.

Maria José San RománOkay, you can be the promoter and we are here to put our part. Okay.

Curtis CordWith great pleasure, I think it’s what we need. It’s what a lot of people need.

Maria José San RománYes, I was just talking about this with Peter Kaminsky, in New York, last time I was there. He was also interested in making the book, so he said “We could do it.” But no more about that. I don’t know. I’m in your hands now. Now I am very glad you count on me for this, because I enjoy being part of the olive oil world. I am so happy to know about this product, and I am more than happy to share it with everybody.

Curtis CordWell I was thinking, for this program on olive oil, one of the first things we needed to do was talk about olive oil in food, and olive oil in dishes. And I thought about, who can speak to this topic? And, really, your name was the only one that occurred to me. You’re the only one I thought of. And this tells you how few, even the best chefs in the world, of which you are among them, how few chefs can talk about olive oil, can understand olive oil and all that it can do. And all that it should do. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and I hope to see you again soon.

Maria José San RománThank you, Curtis, I know you and I will reach them.