Olives are placed in the hopper to remove stems, leaves, and branches. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE
Perfect oil production a mixture of art and science
It’s oil in a day’s work for Rod Lingard at the Olive Press in Greytown.
For the last 15 years he’s been chairman of the company which produces award-winning extra virgin olive oils for its shareholders, which include local Wairarapa growers.
Lingard’s foray into olive growing and pressing stems from a weekend getaway from Wellington to Wairarapa with his wife one hot Friday afternoon almost 20 years ago.
The self-confessed Wellington foodies fell in love with olives and bought a grove of their own, prompting Lingard to get involved with the Olive Press.
Established in 2001, the company uses a large centrifugal olive press imported from Florence, Italy, to make its award-winning olive oils.
“We have a range of customers from small to medium-range growers,” he said.
Across Wairarapa, Wellington, and Kapiti, they have about 100 customers and process about 300 tonnes of olives.
It also provides other services to olive growers such as leasing or contracting land management, as well as bottling and storing oils.
A mix of art and science is the key to blending a great extra virgin olive oil, Lingard said.
Olives are delivered to the site, weighed, and checked before being put in the hopper where the stems, leaves, twigs and branches are cleared.
They are washed to remove dirt and then moved to a crusher, which turns the olives into a paste — even the olive pits, which are harder than wood, are crushed.
Crushing the olives helps release the oil from the vacuoles [storage bubbles found in cells].
The paste is mixed to allow small oil droplets to combine into bigger ones,
“It’s like stirring the batter for a cake,” Lingard said.
The paste is then put into centrifuge to separate the oil from other olive components.
The olive oil is piped into another separator to remove any water before being filtered.
It’s important that there are no contaminants in the olive oil, as water is heavier and will sink to the bottom and create a sediment which spoils the flavour.
Finally, the olive oil is poured into storage bladders in barrels for easier transport and later bottling.
All olive oils are poured into green bottles to stop oxidation and help increase their shelf life.
Lingard describes olive oils as a super food.
“In this age of wellness and health, what we’ve always known about olive oil is coming into its own.
“Fat makes up 98 per cent of olive oil. What makes olive oil good is the other two per cent.”
Polyphenols make up this other two per cent and are what give olive oils their flavour, he said.
The fewer polyphenols, the milder the taste — olive oils strong in polyphenols aren’t suited to every palate.
While bigger producers prefer quantity, Lingard said Wairarapa producers focus on the craft.
“We’ve been the best processors for five years in a row. That award is based on the number of gold winning producers.”
The Olive Press and local producers they press for took out several categories in the Olive New Zealand Awards last October.
Loopline Olives won Best in Show and Reserve Best in Show, while Juno Olives took out Best in Boutique and Reserve Best in Boutique.
The Olive Press has also developed a reputation for their own flavoured olive oils, taking home the Best Flavoured Oil award in addition to Best Processor.
It’s a competitive industry.
“Growers have their own [olive tree] varieties, their own recipes, they’re in different parts of the Wairarapa, and have different soils and climate conditions.”
There are three olive processing companies in Wairarapa, but Lingard said too many olives are being processed outside of the region.
He worries the industry is not as advanced as the wine industry, where Wairarapa is well-renowned for its high-quality pinot noirs and boutique wineries.
“We’re way behind the wine industry. If the region can grow great pinot noir, we can grow great olives.
“Apart from the flashes in the 1980s and 1900s, there haven’t been a lot of new olive trees planted in New Zealand or the Wairarapa.”
He said the industry needs to plan long-term to combat future challenges posed by climate change.
“There’s a lot happening in the industry.”
For Lingard it’s always about adding value.
Finding new uses for the waste produced by crushing and separating the olive oil led the Olive Press to embark on a research project two years ago, which they’ve just completed.
They’re currently still going over the details but there are some promising results — such as, potential uses as supplementary stock feed and in pharmaceutical products.
“What’s exciting is filtering the by-products creates a range of raw materials which potentially could be more valuable than the oil.”
Eventually they also hope to be able to put out totally clean water to prevent it impacting on local water treatment plants where the polyphenols kill the vital bacteria.
Lingard is also interested in growing the region’s reputation as food producer.
That’s why the Olive Press became a supporter of the Wairarapa Food Story promotional push and recently partnered with Martinborough winery Ata Rangi to create a degustation event, pairing freshly pressed oils with local wines and food.
“Wairarapa is developing quite a bit of a buzz. It’s the food basket of New Zealand,” he said.