Loopline Olives grove. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Extra virgin olive oil is made to be sloshed not drizzled and Wairarapa’s award-winning producers want more Kiwis to get the message after the region’s continuing success in the Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards.
With the combination of dedicated growers and its unique climate, Wairarapa has evolved into a leading olive-growing and extra virgin olive oil-producing region.
On Saturday night in Masterton, Wairarapa producers took out the top five medals in the annual Extra Virgin Olive Oil awards.
But the industry is still growing.
Increasing consumers’ knowledge of the health benefits and uses of the green oil is the key to it flourishing alongside the region’s other high-profile bottled product, wine.
Not enough people know extra virgin olive oil is the only oil rich in polyphenols, one of nature’s antioxidants.
It is believed to reduce cholesterol levels, is a natural source of vitamins A, E and K, benefits brain function, and acts as an anti-inflammatory.
Colin and Di Hadley have been living the Mediterranean olive-growing dream for the past 18 years.
Their Martinborough-based grove and business, Left Field Olives, is considered ‘boutique’ with about 450 trees planted on a 4ha piece of Martinborough land.
Colin said the couple found their niche in the industry through trial and error.
The industry had experienced some “growing pains”, like the country’s wine industry some 40 years ago, he said.
Colin described it as a “serrated edge” combination of producers – made up of boutique and large commercial operations, as well as those still searching for their spot.
But he narrows the industry’s biggest challenge down to struggles selling extra virgin olive oil in New Zealand due to the lack of understanding of the “fantastic” product.
“It all comes down to education, it’s a deep-seated view with New Zealanders that you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil.
“It’s nonsense — you can cook with it,” he said.
While travelling in Europe recently, the couple got an appreciation of the quality of New Zealand’s olive oil.
“The country is producing oil at a quality you’d get from the best producers in Tuscany,” he said.
Extra virgin olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet that has been used for cooking for centuries, he said.
“It’s very versatile and fantastically healthy … it’s one of the most underrated products of our era,” Colin said.
The regular comments Colin and Di hear from consumers during market days and taste-testing sessions are mainly spurred from the misconception of the product.
“People come along and they say, ‘oh we will only buy a bottle for the summer’ sort of thing, and ‘of course we only drizzle this good stuff on the lettuce’.
“And you think ‘oh goodness no this is for sloshing not drizzling’.”
When they planted the first trees, they worked on the basis they would not get a decent crop for about seven years, but on the fifth season they were already producing, and by the seventh they had won a ‘best in show’ award.
“It’s patchy, you have some years that are average and below average – like most agriculture enterprises.
“We strive to break even, and that can be a struggle, but there is a lifestyle element to it,” he said.
Colin puts the success down to a handful of factors.
Wairarapa sits in a unique band of climate and geology giving the trees a good balance between young volcanic soils and hot summers.
“We have to do it on quality. That’s why we keep going in those awards.”
The Left Field Tuscan Blend won Best in Class for Boutique Intense Blends, and a gold medal, this year.
Their Barnea Blend was awarded a Silver Medal for Boutique Mild Blends.
No secret to being the best
If Mark and Kate Bunny, of Loopline Olives, knew the secret recipe to producing their award-winning extra virgin olive oil, they would keep it very safe, they say.
Alas, there isn’t one.
The combination of good Wairarapa soil, sunshine hours, climate and water determines the quality of olive oil, Mark said.
On Saturday, Loopline Olives were the first producers to take out both Best and Reserve in Show, while Juno, from Greytown, who took out Best, and Reserve in Boutique in this year’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil awards held on Saturday night in Masterton.
But before buying the rural Masterton grove, now 900 trees, in 2009, the couple, who were in their mid-50s, didn’t know much about olives as former sheep and beef farmers.
Mark admits, “I had never had an olive by itself, and probably never had olive oil”.
Moving to the property, Mark even considered removing the grove altogether.
But after almost a decade, the olives are still there, though they agree the industry is still young, similar to the wine industry some decades ago.
“It started out as hobby growers … but I think every grower is trying to look at it on a commercial basis now,” he said.
The Bunnys believe the general public’s knowledge of extra virgin olive oil’s health benefits and what it can be used for is low but improving.
Television cooking shows were enhancing the presence of the oil, Kate said.
The Bunnys do most of their cooking with the oil whether it’s in baking, on deserts or soaking meat in it before cooking.
Kate said the word is “slosh” when it comes to using the oil.
They did not know the power of their high-quality oil until entering their first round of national awards in 2014 – they won Best in Show for the Picholene.
Their entire grove of four varieties is now award-winning having taken out medals at Saturday night’s awards.
Mark considers the Loopline oil similar to a single-malt whiskey — “We don’t blend anything with it, it is what it is.”
Kate said the Olives NZ medals on the bottles were crucial in marketing and selling.
Wairarapa was known for its medium-sized groves with growers focused on producing a high quality, artisan product, said Olives New Zealand [Olives NZ] chief executive Gayle Sheridan.
The region is home to consistent award winners at the annual awards hosted by the company, and this year’s awards were no different.
“Growers report that having a gold or silver medal is viewed very favourably by the consumer and indeed many gold winners will sell out of product by Christmas,” Sheridan said.
The olive oil industry is “at the beginning of being great”, says Martinborough’s Dali Oil producer Ross Vintiner.
Dali won gold and best in class for Dali Frantoio, in the Commercial Mild section of Saturday’s awards. Dali Picual won a gold medal for Commercial Intense Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Vintiner said the industry is attempting to become more professional with new Ministry for Primary Industries food safety regulations a welcome development,
Vintiner was there at the beginning of the industry when he planted Barnea olive trees on a property in Gladstone in 1989, though that didn’t work out as the industry was only just budding.
Vintiner has since worked in the wine industry, and he too makes a comparison with the olive oil.
Just like other producers, Vintiner said the consumer’s knowledge of the oil “has a long way to go”.
“But the wine industry has managed to educate, so so can we,” he said.
Current producers are typically at the older end of the age scale having invested in the industry on the late 1990s to 2000s, planting their first olive trees, “as part of the Tuscan dream”.
“A lot of people are in there for the love of it and the enthusiasm around the products – it is a real challenge for most growers,” he said.
Vintiner said “everyone faces the costs and issues” just like any agricultural venture.
One olive tree at a time
New Zealanders consumes approximately four million litres of extra virgin olive oil annually of which the New Zealand produced product makes up less than 10%, according to Olives New Zealand.
But that has not always been the way.
In 1835, olives were growing in Northland, before various attempts were made to establish a thriving industry, but it didn’t take-off until the 1980s, the encyclopedia said.
The industry’s late uptake is attributed to the fact most New Zealanders were unfamiliar with the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine and culture, that the varieties grown yielded low and were not suitable for extracting oil, and lastly, imported olive oil and table olives were cheap to buy instore.
Commercial olive-growing began in Blenheim when Gidon Blumenfeld imported new cultivars from Israel in the late 1980s, the encyclopaedia said.
In the 1990s, oil from the Blenheim olives received the highest rating of ‘extra-virgin’.
Once it was known that New Zealand could produce high-quality olive oil, interest in growing olives blossomed.
Extra virgin olive oils have to be certified before being marketed as the top quality.
To qualify for the Olives New Zealand Certification, the oil must meet specific requirements including bottling and labelling standards as well as the chemical and sensory criteria based on the International Olive Council (IOC) standards.
Growers’ tips for dining with a slosh of extra virgin olive oil
-Drizzled over vanilla ice-cream with a dash of salt
-Whipped in porridge
-Cooked with fish, poultry and red meat
This article is part of the rural series, ‘Beckie’s Block’, in each Thursday edition.