Olive oil industry presses ahead
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.