As emergencies go, this was a serious one. Like a pipeline disaster causing a sudden shortage of crude oil, the lack of such a vital ingredient brought everything to a standstill. I had the food laid out, ready to cook. The guests—all gourmets and food buffs—were arriving soon, the oven was hot, the wines uncorked, and I had just realised we were out of olive oil.
I buy my oils in three- or four-litre cans—Spanish, Italian or preferably Greek—which are usually located on the shops’ bottom shelves. But as luck would have it the supermarket was out of stock. The top shelf, however, was crowded with fancy little bottles. Until then I had never taken much notice of them—when you use as much oil as a vintage Holden, the top-shelf stuff seems like bad economy. But I was struck by the sheer number and diversity of brands.
All these oleic treasures in dark-green and brown bottles carried an impressive array of labels. All had a coin-size red seal stating “ONZ certified extra virgin olive oil” and usually some similar-size gold or silver miniature medals from national competitions as well. On their sides were more stickers declaring technical details: free acidity to the second decimal point and peroxide value in something called mEq/kg. Every one of these oils was produced in New Zealand, and evidently proud of the fact.
I knew growing olives in this country was a popular hobby, but this explosion of brands of locally made olive oils was a surprise. Though, per litre, the prices were on the par with that of single-malt whisky, a bottle of locally grown and pressed oil saved my dinner party and left me intrigued. With wine exports soaring, was olive oil the next big thing to come out of New Zealand?
Just half an hour from where I live, at the back of Bannockburn, olive grower Anna Clark is the co-owner of Cairnmuir Estate, where she tends some 1000 trees. “You’ve come at a rather frantic time,” she said. “We’ve just had the first serious frosts, down to minus six, so it’s all hands on deck to get the harvest in before we start losing fruit.”
Cairnmuir is at the southernmost extreme of where olives grow and the harsh climate is both a risk and a blessing. “Sometimes we lose fruit to weather but the oil we manage to make has particularly strong and desirable flavours.”
Clark handed me a yellow plastic rake. “We can talk while we work,” she said, then showed me how to comb the acorn-size fruit off the branches and on to mesh mats covering the ground. I was surprised to learn there weren’t actually black and green olive varieties; they were the same olive at different stages of ripeness, with purple falling somewhere in between. “Whatever the colour, just don’t be tempted to taste them,” she warned. “Your mouth would be numb for hours.”
It was the end of May and the Otago hills—Pisa, Dunstan and Old Man ranges—were already freshened with snow. We were on a terrace above Lake Dunstan, hemmed in by the crags of the Cairnmuir Mountains after which the estate is named. The day was still and sunny, but where the shadows lingered the ground remained hoared with frost. About a dozen people, local friends of Clark and her husband Stephen, were milling about the grove of robust-looking trees, combing their willowy branches, as if brushing knots out of silver-green coiffures. At regular intervals they gathered the ground mats, holding them by the corners, funnelling their contents into plastic crates and carting them away.
In a converted garage, Stephen Clark laboured at the processing plant. He seemed almost in a trance. Anna explained earlier that these were the most critical days of the olives’ annual growing cycle, around which both the family’s lifestyle and livelihood revolved. The olives had to be pressed as soon as possible after harvest—ideally within 24 hours of picking—and her husband was at the epicentre of the activity, manning the press, repairing it when it broke down, keeping tallies of both olives and oil. This was no small task considering the processing plant served a number of Otago growers who rostered their harvest around the “press time”. Even a short outage could be disastrous, with more frosts forecast and the fruit piling up.
The processing plant itself was essentially a giant juicer. It resembled both a grinder and a concrete mixer, its parts connected by a horseshoe-shaped system of stainless-steel troughs through which helical blades churned and moved along an oily, khaki-coloured mortar, the olives which had been ground to a pulp, stones and all. At the plant’s outlet end, past the malaxer (which kneads the olive paste to bind the oil particles) and the final centrifuge, came a viscous flow of green liquid which filled the room with the scent of freshly cut grass, heady and pungent, filling my nostrils with a whiff of cracked pepper. This oil is as virgin as olive oil gets, olio nuovo–raw, unfiltered and cold off the press. It trickled out of the pipe, slow and languid, as if squeezed from sun-baked landscape itself.
Of all the olive-growing regions in New Zealand, Central Otago is the newest and smallest. The dry gravel soils that produce such excellent wines are also ideal for olives. However, the growing season is short and the fruit has to be picked relatively unripe, resulting in strong-tasting oils similar to those pressed in Tuscany. The climatic similarities between the two regions are both remarkable and encouraging, as the Tuscan oils are considered by connoisseurs to be among the best in the world, their style, flavours and complexity a benchmark to which growers aspire. According to olive lore, the more the trees struggle, the better the oil produced by their fruit. Central Otago, with its heat waves and frosts, its intense sunshine and desiccating winds, is sure to push the trees to the limits of both survival and productivity.
With the exception of the wet West Coast and Southland, much of New Zealand is suitable for growing olives. The climate also discourages the most serious pests and diseases—olive knot and the olive fly—which means that organic and low-spray horticulture are both viable. Northland is also an active growing region but, with its longer season, can produce thicker, smoother and milder oils, with characteristic nutty undertones. Olive trees also thrive between these two extremes, producing a range of tastes we are only now beginning to appreciate.
The volumes produced may be small—our entire production falls just shy of the infinitesimal when compared to that of the world’s olive oil giants such as Italy, Spain and Greece. But visit a grower in Otago, Marlborough, Waiheke or any other part of New Zealand and you get a sense that they see themselves as part of a revolution, one, several olive grove owners told me, that has long been overdue.
Pakeha New Zealand inherited its earlier culinary tradition from Britain, which has not been the Empire’s greatest contribution to the betterment of the country. Stodgy, overcooked food, heavy with animal fats and dairy products and shy on fresh greens—a recipe for coronary and cholesterol-related diseases.
It was through medical research in 1957 that much of the Anglo-Saxon world learned about the possibility of a better diet. A US multi-disciplinary scientist, Ancel Keys, founder of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota, correlated the rates of heart diseases with countries’ quotidian diet.
The inhabitants of Crete, an island already known for one of the longest life expectancies in the world, emerged as the healthiest, with the lowest rates of coronary disorders such as atherosclerosis. This was despite the fact that most of the islanders were heavy smokers.
When Keys analysed their diet he discovered it was based on green salads, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, cereals and grains, fresh herbs and fish, garlic, red wine, olives and olive oil. A lot of olive oil. So much olive oil that it provided some 40 per cent of the daily intake of calories. As the results of the study received media attention, health-conscious Westerners began converting to the Mediterranean diet. “Get your Meds” became the motto of the day and exotic new words were canonised into common parlance: pesto, feta, aioli, tzatziki, souvlaki, hummus and tahini. The shift wasn’t a hard one to make. Food from the Mediterranean is as tasty as it is nutritious.
Today, Ancel Keys’ findings—olive oil good, animal fats bad—are considered simplistic, although it’s worth noting that he lived what he taught and died in good health two months short of his 101st birthday. And the Mediterranean diet he brought to our attention has proven to be more than a passing food fad.
New Zealand, however, has been slow on its uptake, particularly compared with Australia, where the olive oil revolution occurred much earlier—presumably because eating habits there were already influenced by Greek and Italian immigrants. The coronary mortality of Australians fell by 70 per cent over two decades and the changing nutritional preferences are especially evident in the consumption of butter, an average of 2.6 kg per person per year in Australia, compared to 13 kg in New Zealand.
But New Zealanders have been familiar with the olive tree for a long time. Charles Darwin noted the presence of one at the mission station in Waimate North, inland from the Bay of Islands, in 1835. However, that tree, and all other contemporary specimens of Olea europaea, was planted for purely ornamental purposes. Two early efforts to set up commercial olive groves in the country (one by Sir John Logan Campbell in Auckland, the other by Sir George Grey on Kawau Island) both failed. These put such a damper on any further trials that as late as the 1960s and 70s both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research warned that “before any serious attempt is made to establish commercial olive groves, it would be necessary to ascertain the demand, bearing in mind that olive products can be imported fairly cheaply”.
And the demand for olive oil was minuscule. Tui Flower, the food editor at the time of the NZ Woman’s Weekly, is quoted in A Buyer’s Guide to NZ Olive Oil as recalling that she regularly received letters of protests from readers whenever her recipes featured oils instead of the traditional cooking fats such as butter or lard.
As recently as 1985, a Government report on “The Potential for Commercial Growing of Olives in New Zealand” passed largely unnoticed. But by then the seeds of the olive oil revolution were taking root, thanks to the visionary work of two Marlborough couples.
Gidon and Trishka Blumenfeld came from Israel. Gidon had retired from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation to set up an olive grove near Blenheim. From thousands of known olive cultivars (Italy alone has more than 700) Blumenfeld sourced those he deemed the best for New Zealand soil conditions. He acquired Barnea from Israel and other varieties—Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Moraiolo, Picholene and Koroneiki—from the North Italian, French and Greek stock held at the International Olive Council’s tree bank in Cordoba, Spain.
By 1991, he had pressed his first oil, had a thriving nursery and was receiving orders from around the country. Unfortunately, Blumenfeld died just as his labours began to bear fruit, although he remains the undisputed father of the modern New Zealand olive oil industry.
At the same time, amid the sudden boom of the Marlborough winemaking industry, Mike and Diane Ponder were also setting up an experimental olive grove on their 36 ha estate on the dry gravels of the Wairau River. As with any pioneering venture, the early days were trying. They lost many plants but learned that olive trees were hardy and resilient and that when they struggled to survive during a particularly harsh winter, the best solution was to cut them to the ground. The trees would weather the cold and, in spring, grow back again. The Ponders pressed their first oil in 1994 and a year later Mike presented a bottle of this “green gold” to Fausto Luchetti, executive director of the International Olive Oil Council in Madrid.
A miraculous thing happened: an international tasting panel gave the oil an almost perfect score, and as a result it was listed in the prestigious buyer’s guidebook, The Olive Oil Companion, as one of the world’s top-100 single-estate oils. It was as though the fuse for a new boom had been lit. During the rest of the 90s the demand for nursery plants became so high it took a year before an order could be delivered.
New olive groves and growers co-ops began sprouting wherever the land and climate were suitable: in Northland and on Waiheke Island, around Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay, along the Kapiti Coast and in Wairarapa, in Nelson, Marlborough, North Canterbury and Central Otago.
In 1996, New Zealand became an associate member of the International Olive Council (IOC). In 2002, at the LA County Fair’s “Oils of the World” competition, olive oil from the Blumenfeld estate won the top international award. It seemed that New Zealand had truly struck oil. The problem was, there wasn’t yet a market for it.
“We got it all back to front,” Edwin Pitts, a former olive grower, told me in a tiny office behind the Marlborough oil press near the centre of Blenheim. “It wasn’t an industry back then, more an infatuation with olives and the lifestyle. But the realities of the market struck home soon enough.”
When the production came on-stream, there were no outlets to sell the oil, other than in boutique quantities. Pitts, once a farmer and now one of the co-owners of the olive press, had once been at the industry’s forefront and rode both its boom and its bust. “We didn’t do our marketing homework,” he said, “and so we were left with a whole lot of good oil going rancid. Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t keep well. It loses its flavour and aroma, its intrinsic goodness. Ideally, it should be consumed within a year to 18 months of pressing—two years at the latest—which makes timely sales and marketing all the more critical.”
Pitts asked what oil I used and when I named a well-known and ubiquitous Italian brand, the staple extra-virgin variety, he made a face of horror and disgust.
“That’s terrible stuff. Almost always rancid by the time it gets to New Zealand. I couldn’t even cook with it.”
“At least I can afford it.”
“Ah!” Pitts said, “This is exactly where the misconception lies. You can’t look at the price alone; extra-virgin and ‘cold-pressed’ oils are not all equal. Putting mass-market oils next to those produced in New Zealand is like comparing cheap and nasty cask wine with the first-water grand cru vintages.”
The mass-market oils are also not always what their labels claim them to be, he explained, because the world of olive oil is not without its rogues. Remember Mario Puzo’s Godfather and the Corleone family’s “olive oil” business being a front for the Mob? It seems that in real life olive oil is not a front but a fair-go activity for industrious mobsters. There have been numerous scandals and indictments of large Italian producers caught adulterating their “extra-virgin” oils with cruder varieties, even cases of adding colours and flavours to canola oil and flogging it as “olio extra vergine”.
The Italian government has enacted a law requiring that all producers declare specific farms and presses from which their oils come and display precise breakdowns of the oils used in blends. This, however, hasn’t been enough to deter oleaginous shenanigans. In March 2008, Italian police conducted Operation Golden Oil, which resulted in the arrest of 23 people and the confiscation of 85 farms involved in a large-scale scheme of relabelling cheaper oils that were being passed off as Italian, but weren’t. The next month, in another blitz, seven oil plants were confiscated and 40 people arrested for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra-virgin olive oil.
“With New Zealand oils you know precisely what you are getting,” says Pitts. “The labels mean what they say and the industry is small enough to be straight and transparent. Our olive oils may be expensive but they are fresh, made with passion, and can compete with the best in the world.”
What is it about olive oil that makes it so desirable? Why do the Greeks, the world’s largest consumers, consider it a form of ambrosia, imbibing 26 litres per person a year and devoting 60 per cent of their cultivated land to growing it?
Homer called it “liquid gold”, and before medals were invented amphorae of olive oil were given as prizes on Olympic podiums. Such was the importance of olive oil in the Med that when Aristotle wrote the constitution of Athens, he insisted that anyone caught uprooting or felling an olive tree should be punished with death. The Romans exacted their imperial taxes in barrels of olive oil and the olive tree is said to be the first plant mentioned in the Bible. Even the usually strict and pious Prophet Muhammad praised the plant’s essence: “Consume olive oil and anoint it upon your bodies since it is of the blessed tree.”
Contemporary scientific and medical research is now confirming what the ancients knew for thousands of years: that olive oil is an all-in-one lubricant, nutrient and conditioner for the human mechanism.
Perhaps most importantly, olive oil is a superfood for the brain. It contains three fatty acids—oleic, linoleic (omega 6), and alpha-linolenic (omega 3)—critical for the functioning of the brain, which, incidentally, is built largely of fats. (Oleic, for example, is the principal fatty acid of myelin, which forms an insulating sheath around certain nerve fibres.) Branka Simunovich, a Croatian immigrant and founder of New Zealand’s largest olive oil operation, Simunovich Olive Estate at Bombay, just south of Auckland, once said that in her tradition olive oil is like mother’s milk. This may seem a romantic sentiment until you consider the evidence. Oleic acid, the main component of olive oil, is indeed the most abundant fatty acid in human breast milk.
Lee Nelson, a retired medical doctor from the US who is now living in New Zealand, is an ardent proponent of olive oil, having reviewed 2000 medical papers in the course of research for his book, Prostate Cancer Prevention and Cure, and having fought his own private battle with cancer. He writes that many health benefits are associated with regular intake of high-quality olive oil, including a reduced risk of ulcers, gallstones, rheumatoid arthritis, a variety of cancers, and better metabolism in diabetics.
Though we are being constantly seduced by newfangled fat-free no-cholesterol diets and products, our bodies need both fat and cholesterol to function properly. However, they need good fats and good cholesterol—monounsaturated fats and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. Top-quality olive oil is a solid source of both.
According to Nelson, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil offers numerous other health benefits. It helps to reduce atheromatous plaque formation in the coronary arteries, lowers blood pressure, has anti-inflammatory effects and lubricates the joints. It also contains a host of antioxidants, thought to purge free radicals from the body and inhibit the insidious action of carcinogens. Interestingly, there are no known cases of allergies to olive oil.
But what exactly does “high-quality, extra-virgin and cold-pressed” mean? In New Zealand, one woman who has worked to understand and uphold these qualities is Margaret Edwards. After a career as a dietician, Edwards retired in 2000 to devote her time to the olive grove she and her husband planted on Waiheke Island eight years before.
Aware that growing olive trees as a hobby is different from growing them as an economically viable crop, she determined to educate herself in the intricacies of olive oils from the outset. In the process, she trained at the IOC’s Italian branch to become New Zealand’s first international olive oil judge, and developed the country’s own sensory panel, the first such body in a non-English-speaking country.
I met Edwards in Cromwell as she prepared to give a weekend seminar to a group of Otago growers. “By definition, extra-virgin olive oil must be an entirely natural product,” she said. “It is the juice obtained from olives that have been processed mechanically. Nothing may be added and neither heat nor chemicals may be used at any stage of the process.” The result is cold-extracted extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), which potentially has the highest concentration of health-preserving antioxidants and nutrients. The key word here is cold, because if heat is used during extraction, the olive oil’s chemistry is changed, its quality compromised.
Olive oil is a fragile and sensitive product. Traditionally, once ground into a pulp, olives were pressed by hydraulic means and, as the process yielded only about 50 per cent of the oil content, subsequent pressings and heat were used to extract the remaining oils of increasingly inferior quality: pure, pomace and lampante.
Today, however, with centrifugal processing equipment, almost all the oil in New Zealand can be extra-virgin providing care is taken during harvesting, processing and storage. The IOC sets the criteria for olive oil worldwide. By its decree, if the oil is to be classified as extra-virgin, it must satisfy both chemical analysis and sensory evaluation, the latter being a blind tasting by a panel of judges. The chemical analysis is concerned with such factors as the free fatty acid content, ultra-violet absorption and peroxide value, all of which indicate the oil’s quality and stability. Only oils that pass these stringent lab tests get through to the second round, the sensory evaluation.
When tasted, the oils must be free from defects (such as tasting fusty, musty, rancid, winey or having muddy sediment) and display the attribute of fruitiness. Pungency and bitterness are also noted, but they are part of the oil’s style and character rather than its quality.
Explained Edwards: “There are many factors which contribute to the flavour and aroma of oil—the olive variety, soil, climate, time of harvest, and the care taken during harvesting, processing and storage. The tasting is not to establish which oil is better than another but to find out whether or not they pass the EVOO quality benchmark.”
What does that mean for the everyday consumer? The red seal of approval means that the oil has met the strictest requirements and that the local industry association, Olives New Zealand, guarantees its quality. “The rest is really a matter of taste and preference,” Edwards says. “There are different styles of oil [intense, medium or delicate] and different flavours and aromas. The only way to choose is to taste as many oils as you can and find out your favourites.”
Since saving my dinner party with a bottle of locally grown oil, I’ve been doing just that, sampling oils from diverse groves and regions in the way you’d taste different wines.
And I no longer cook with bulk oil. It is a one-way conversion. Once you’ve tasted the good stuff there’s no going back. Luxury has become a necessity.
The New Zealand olive oil industry is still in its early stages, but it’s withstood its initial boom and bust and has learned from its early stumbles. It is tiny and likely to remain so—in 2008 it produced 225,000 litres of extra-virgin olive oil from 1700 tonnes of olives and 400 growers. The good news is that olive trees reach their prime fruit-bearing stage when they are 30-100 years old. And as most of New Zealand’s one million trees are yet to reach that age, the best is yet to come.