Olive oil in­dus­try presses ahead

Wairarapa News - - OUT & ABOUT -

Fly­ing qui­etly under the radar, New Zealand’s olive oil in­dus­try is de­vel­op­ing an im­pres­sive rep­u­ta­tion.

Our ex­tra vir­gin olive oil grow­ers are tak­ing on – and beat­ing – some of the world’s big­gest names. At the re­cent New Zealand Ex­tra Vir­gin Olive Oil Awards, in­ter­na­tional head judge Giuseppe Di Lecce said the olive oils were ‘‘some of the best’’ he’d tasted all sea­son.

The ex­plo­sion in the in­dus­try’s pop­u­lar­ity is rel­a­tively re­cent. The coun­try’s old­est trees date back to the 1830s when Charles Dar­win ev­i­dently ob­served them grow­ing at Wai­mate North, but the cur­rent scene has its roots in the early 1990s. So the big ques­tion: how is olive oil made?

Wairarapa-based Bruce McCal­lum, who owns the Olive Press, said it wasn’t hard to pro­duce olive oil – but mak­ing good ex­tra vir­gin olive oil was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

‘‘Where you get it right it is a com­bi­na­tion of grow­ing, har­vest­ing, ex­pert pro­cess­ing and proper stor­age and care,’’ he said.

It gen­er­ally takes eight to 10 years for olive trees to pro­duce fruit but some can bloom as early as three years and oth­ers take as long as 15.

They grow best in rocky soils, a la the Mediter­ranean, so New Zealand’s milder cli­mate calls for a few mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

‘‘Un­like Mediter­ranean cli­mates, which are dry all year round, we tend to at­tract more bugs and more nas­ties that like to grow on the trees,’’ McCal­lum said. ‘‘Be­cause of this, spray­ing is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal.’’

While smaller op­er­a­tions are har­vested by hand, larger ones are done by ma­chines.

The cleaner they are – the fewer leaves and twigs mixed in with the olives – the bet­ter it is when pro­cess­ing time comes around.

‘‘It’s im­por­tant to get olives to the press within 24 hours,’’ McCal­lum said. ‘‘Even shorter if pos­si­ble. Over 24 hours they start to de­te­ri­o­rate.’’

While there are var­i­ous smaller presses scat­tered around New Zealand, there are only three big ones: one is lo­cated in Auck­land, an­other in Hawke’s Bay and then there is McCal­lum’s in Wairarapa.

Press­ing gen­er­ally takes place over June and July but the amount can vary con­sid­er­ably. In 2016 – a bumper year – McCal­lum pressed 500 tonnes; this year, with poor weather af­fect­ing olive groves, he pressed just 160 tonnes.

Once pressed, an oil-maker with ex­pert skills – equiv­a­lent to a wine-maker – works their magic to turn it into a us­able prod­uct.

Stor­age is key, with a dark and cool place suit­ing the oil best. Light and wa­ter are the twin en­e­mies of olive oil, so putting it in a clear glass, or mix­ing it with wa­ter, is a bad idea.

One of the ear­li­est olive groves in New Zealand is Martinborough’s Olivo. Coowner Helen Mee­han said Wairarapa’s cli­mate, in par­tic­u­lar, helped pro­duce ex­cel­lent ex­tra vir­gin olive oils.

‘‘I’ve al­ways said that where you grow good wine, you can grow good olives. We have the right cli­mate, soil, the right trees in the right place. You have your good years and your bad years, of course, but in gen­eral the [Wairarapa] pro­duces some very, very good olive oils.’’

The in­dus­try here is still in its in­fancy. Sev­eral olive oil grow­ers have talked of eye­open­ing trips to Europe; while most Kiwi olive groves are around 25 years old, Euro­pean trees of­ten go back cen­turies.

‘‘It was a sober­ing sight,’’ said McCal­lum, who re­cently spent sev­eral weeks in Tus­cany. ‘‘It put how young we are in con­text. We’re only just start­ing – we’ve got a long way to go.’’

The olive oil in­dus­try here is still in its in­fancy.

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