Oranges to Oils: Producing Essential Oils in Portugal’s Alentejo Region

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Written by: | Last updated on December 21, 2023 | Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes
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Sunshine, good wine, and beautiful beaches may be what attracts most people to Portugal, but for the Essential Citrus team, the appeal is citrus. Growing oranges in the Alentejo might not sound like the most unique business venture – Portugal was forecast to produce 315,000 metric tonnes in 2021 – but Essential Citrus isn’t producing the oranges you’ll drink in your next sumo de laranja. Instead, the company’s focus is on extracting essential oils from very rare citrus varieties grown in the Alentejo by a small network of farmers.

The Alentejo-based venture creates citrus extracts from more than 350 different citrus varieties, all from GlobalGAP-certified trees. Some of the most popular extracts include yuzu, kumquat, kaffir lime, pomelos, and Buddha’s hand. The fruits’ essences, known as phenolic compounds, are extracted from fresh peels. To reduce the time between harvest and extraction, the extractions are performed onsite –  in the citrus groves themselves. Extracting the oils locally means a higher quality oil and a smaller carbon footprint for the business. The machinery runs on renewable energy and uses minimal water consumption, a key factor for a business in the Alentejo. No solvents are used which means the waste is entirely compostable. 

Essential Citrus have picked up an array of clients in Portugal and the rest of Europe, including the UK, with a client list that includes perfumers, flavourists, high-end chefs, collectors, and aromatherapists. These clients represent a fraction of the global essential oils industry, which is estimated to grow to more than 27 billion USD in 2022. 

However, although this industry presents opportunities for regions like the Alentejo, there are a few challenges. There’s the Alentejo’s shrinking and aging population, which makes hiring and finding suitable partners more challenging. And while there is a network of citrus growers in the Alentejo, the varieties Essential Citrus uses are rare and require growers to have a specialist knowledge of the varietal.

In a region prone to drought, the climate is also a concern. Essential Citrus uses very little water during the extraction process, but water is still necessary to grow the fruit. To reduce water consumption Essential Citrus’s growers use a drip irrigation system under a weed barrier textile topped by four centimetres of mineral mulch that reduces water consumption by 80%. Water irrigation schedules are tested and optimised to find the times that result in the least wastage. Insects and sun damage are controlled by individually covering each piece of fruit. 

Oranges might not sound like the most creative business opportunity Portugal has to offer. Citruses that are typically grown in Asia rather than the Alentejo, however: that’s something else entirely – something that has put this part of rural Portugal on the radar of perfumers and restaurateurs across Europe. 

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.