Escape to Sant Miquel de Tudela, an off-grid Spanish farm on the Catalonia countryside with naturally grown olives, almonds, and herbs.
Parisian-born Virginie Buu-Hoi Stewart counts herself fortunate to have fulfilled her life’s goal of traveling overseas and living in major cities. And who could blame her if she pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming while in Vietnam, London, the United States, and South Africa? Never in her wildest dreams, though, did she think her ultimate destination would be Sant Miquel de Tudela, an off-grid Spanish farm in a remote part of the country.
In 2017, Virginie and her husband, James, took over her mother’s 6-hectare olive, almond, and herb farm in Catalonia, Spain. The property also includes the ruins of a 12th-century village and church. Although initially unsure what to expect, Virginie says the transition led to an unexpected passion for the land. “Who would’ve thought that a real Parisian like me would be willing to trade in her high heels, makeup, and suit for a pair of old jeans and boots to become a farmer?” she says.
A Course to the Catalonia Countryside
Virginie didn’t know it at the time, but in 2002, her mother, Maria Mercedes Tacies Binefa, known as Mercedes, set her daughter’s course correction in motion when she answered a call to return to her roots. That year, Mercedes purchased five contiguous parcels in Spain’s la Segarra region. Mercedes grew up in that area, and many of her family members still live there. Her plan was to develop the property, which she named Sant Miquel de Tudela, into a working farm. She also wanted to restore the on-site village, which was abandoned in 1348 during the Black Death, and the church of Sant Pere de Tudela, known locally today as the church of Sant Miquel de Tudela. The property includes a forest of small evergreen oaks (Quercus ilex), a cabin called Cal Tacies, and an 18th-century house called Cal Tonillo.
Mercedes planned to modernize the property, including turning Cal Tonillo into an ecological retirement home for herself and her husband, Patrick Buu-Hoi. In pursuit of that dream, she added a rainwater-collection system and solar panels to the house. The restoration of Sant Miquel de Tudela became her passion. “Unfortunately, my mother was quite sick the last five years of her life and only had time to restore Cal Tonillo before she passed away in 2014,” Virginie says.
Two and a half years after Mercedes passed, Virginie and James made the life-changing decision to carry on her mother’s dream. They were living in South Africa at the time, and when James’ work contract expired, they moved to Spain, giving up their life in the city to live in an area so remote it lacks grid-connected electricity and running water. The area is accessible only by a long network of dirt and gravel roads that wind through picturesque rolling hills and fields so pristine they seem untouched by the modern world. Luckily for Virginie and James, one of Mercedes’ last projects was to add central heating to the home, and Cal Tonillo was move-in ready when they arrived.
While studying her mother’s files to understand her goals for the property, Virginie uncovered letters written by Mercedes in which she explained her plans for Virginie to take over the farm. It was a shocking discovery. “What touched me was I thought, ‘Oh my god! She knew all along,’ ” Virginie says. “I don’t know if I was passionate the first few months after we got here and didn’t know what we were doing. But as I read her files and learned more about the project, that’s when the passion started. And then I thought, ‘I need to think about this! I need to do that!’ ”
Turning Doubts into Dreams
The first thing Virginie did to carry on her mother’s legacy was to gain the certifications necessary to become a farmer — the same certifications her mother had earned. She would need these certifications to sell olives and almonds commercially, as well as to recognize the region’s 500 wild herbs. The certifications are also necessary for the farm to meet the phytosanitary and food-hygiene requirements for handling and processing food products. She also needed a rural tourism license, because she wanted to open a bed-and-breakfast. Hardly anyone, it turned out, thought she would succeed.
Farmers in the certification classes Virginie took were suspicious of her dreams, because she was the younger of only two women there, and because of her city background. She changed their minds by showing them she wanted to do things properly and by asking for their advice. “After that, they began treating me like I was one of them!” Virginie says.
Even local friends were among the initial doubters, including Josep Segura, a farmer and the mayor of the nearby village of La Prenyanosa, and his wife, Teresa Pijuan. “They recently told me that they thought we would be here for a few months and for holiday and that what we were doing was more like a hobby than a vocation,” Virginie says. But, as she had with the farmers, she earned Josep and Teresa’s respect and admiration through hard work. “They realized I was determined to succeed, and we weren’t going to give up.”
Not only have Virginie and James turned skeptics into admirers, but they’re also finally starting to see the fruits of their investment. They’ve developed a boutique product line of extra-virgin olive oil from 160 olive trees; sweet and crunchy packaged almonds from 60 trees; herbs that are seasonally harvested and dried; and small batches of jams and syrups from wild-growing figs, blackberries, pomegranates, and quinces picked at peak ripeness. They also welcome B&B guests, offering them a variety of natural experiences, including participating in olive and almond harvests.
Hand-Picked Olives from Well-Respected Trees at Sant Miquel de Tudela
The farm’s biggest production is extra-virgin olive oil from three olive cultivars (Olea europaea): ‘Verdale,’ ‘Cornicabra,’ and ‘Arbequina,’ the last of which is native to the region. Some of the trees are potentially 100 years old, while some of the younger ones were planted by Mercedes or Virginie and James.
The olive trees flower in April and May, and harvest — a favorite activity of B&B guests — occurs during a five-day span in fall. Virginie insists on using the centuries-old method of picking olives by hand, even though shaking them off the trees with electronic tools would greatly reduce harvest time. When asked why she insists on hand-harvesting, she has a quick response: “How would you like to be shaken like that?” she says. “You need to respect nature. A tree is like a person. You don’t shake it. You don’t mistreat it. You look at it, observe it, tell it stories, sing for it!”
Virginie — who’s fluent in French, Spanish, and English; understands Catalan perfectly; and speaks a little Catalan herself — talks to the olive trees in her native French. She tells them, “Tu es un bon élève” (“you are a good student”) when they produce lots of olives. This happened in 2020, and Virginie extended the harvest to two five-day sessions and made two trips to a local mill, where the olives were cold-pressed into oil in the first press. But if the harvest is less than expected, she scolds them with “Je vais te donner une chance de plus.” (“I will give you one more chance.”) To make sure she has their attention, she might add, “Il va falloir te couper les branches.” (“I will have to cut your branches.”)
While some olives are better for oil and others are better to eat, Virginie says hers are good for both. “My oil is a mix of our different kinds of olives with their different tastes,” she says. “I do not have enough olives to separate them into different production types. That makes my blend unique. It is not strong or bitter like some, but is in a medium range for fruitiness, bitterness, and spiciness.” Her oil, she points out, is lab-tested for quality and nutritional content. Like all of her products, it’s made from an all-natural process with no added preservatives and labeled with the Sant Miquel de Tudela brand.
Almond Trees and Wild Honeybees
Sant Miquel de Tudela’s almond production comes from ‘Largueta,’ ‘Marcona,’ and ‘Commune’ cultivars (Prunus dulcis). The trees flower in February and March, and the almonds are harvested by hand at the end of summer — an activity that’s open to guests. After harvest, Virginie lays the almonds out in the sun to dry, and then carefully stores them in baskets until they can be evaluated and packaged. Interestingly, unlike almond growers in California, Virginie doesn’t have to import honeybees to pollinate her trees, because wild honeybees take care of it for her.
Fragrant Herbs, Flavorful Fruits
The farm also produces aromatic herbs and a selection of jams and syrups. The herbs grow wild on the hills of the property’s 6 hectares. Lavender grows in two spots where Virginie’s parents planted it, and it has naturalized among rosemary, thyme, fennel, and cade juniper. The sight of the herbs in bloom is beautiful, but Virginie says she enjoys their fragrance just as much as the riot of colors they produce. While her mother’s primary interest was in medicinal herbs to use for aromatherapy, Virginie’s interests lie in herbs for gastronomy and in creating herb infusions for taste and health benefits. “The weather extremes here enhance their taste and benefits,” she says. “It is foggy and cold in winter, and dry and hot in summer.”
She follows a schedule for harvesting and drying herbs that goes from April to November. Thyme and rosemary can be picked anytime in that interval; lavender is harvested in July; fennel seeds are picked in October; and cade juniper berries are selected in November every two years. Her favorite time for drying herbs is during summer. Once the herbs have dried, Virginie stores them before packaging.
The farm’s fruit production comes from wild-growing figs, blackberries, pomegranates, and quinces. Virginie picks the fruit and berries when they’re perfectly ripe and then preserves them into jams and syrups.
A Catalonia Countryside Vision Embraced
The only part of her mother’s vision for Sant Miquel de Tudela that Virginie hasn’t fulfilled is the restoration of the village and church. “All that remains are ruins,” she says. “You would have to tear down what is left to build anything new, so you would lose the historical heritage.”
Even though she’s leaving the ruins in place, Virginie is confident her mother would approve of how she has embraced her vision. “Teresa [Pijuan] told me that she used to talk a lot with my mother about what she had undertaken,” Virginie says. ” ‘Mercedes, why do you work so hard? You should enjoy what you have achieved. Sit down and read a book, because who is going to enjoy all that you are doing and continue your project?’ And then she told me my mother said, ‘My daughter will like it, and she will continue it.’ ”
Virginie thinks about those words as she looks across the property’s breathtaking views to the distant Pyrenees mountains, which are more of a connection to her new home and her native France than a border between them. “I am doing something my mother would be proud of,” she says. “And that makes me a bit emotional.”
Get in Touch with Sant Miquel de Tudela
Sant Miquel de Tudela offers natural experiences from May to late fall. For more information about participating in harvests, guided hikes, nature photography, and bird-watching (from partridges to eagles, the area is famous for its many migratory and resident species), contact Virginie Stewart at:
Sant Miquel de Tudela
25214 La Prenyanosa
Follow Sant Miquel de Tudela on Instagram: @SantMiquelDeTudela
Tom Oder is a freelance journalist who writes about the environment, business, and agribusiness. He met Virginie Stewart and her husband, James, when James’ international work brought them to Atlanta.