Extending South Africa's olive branch

Olive oil was called “liquid gold” by Greek author Homer. And not without good reason. It has influenced, inspired, nourished, healed and helped maintain the power of some of the most potent empires of the ancient world.

Called the “tree of light” in the Bible, the olive tree was also referred to as a symbol of eternity because of its ability to survive for thousands of years.

South Africa’s burgeoning olive oil industry is burning ever brighter on the international stage: two estates have already won acclaim.
Striking gold last year, the Paarl-based Vesuvio Estates, the country’s largest producer of oils for the local market, won first prize in the “medium-fruity” category at the L’Orciolo D’Oro competition in Italy.

In 2000 the estate walked off with a quality award in the “new world” category in the same competition. “South Africa has a strong chance of becoming a world player if the industry continues to produce top-quality olive oil and sticks to a code of conduct,” said Dr Carlo Castiliogne, general manager at Vesuvio.

“Currently South Africa imports one million litres of olive oil annually and produces 300 000 litres.”

Vesuvio produces 100 000 litres a year on the 440ha estate and it is easy to see why Castiliogne is an award winner. From groves to harvesting and curing to bottling, one has a definite sense of the man’s meticulous attention to detail.

Part of Linda van der Meer’s job as chairperson of the South African Olive Growers’ Association includes educating the public, and the association offers olive oil appreciation courses. “Tastings are really becoming like wine, with their many flavours, bouquets and styles.”

A good oil should smell of freshly cut grass, while typical flavours can include apple, artichoke, nuts and tomato. But Van der Meer, whose Italian grandfather Ferdinand Costa began the South African industry from his cow shed in 1936, believes most South Africans still don’t know the imported oil they buy in supermarkets is mostly second rate. “While local oils are pricier, you can be sure of pomace-free, excellent quality stuff. Our producers are just not able to keep up with the demand.”

Pomace, the name given to olive-residue oils, is produced by a chemical solvent used in the extraction process.

Pomace from Italy, Spain and Greece was recently banned by several countries in Europe and Canada after unacceptably high traces of the chemical were found.

In defence of the foreign brands Pick’n'Pay mostly stocks, senior buyer in the Western Cape David Smith said it was the consumer who ultimately decided what was stocked. “The issue is local oil costs 30% more than the imported brands and until local producers are able to compete on price and volume we cannot stock their oils.”

Henk Hanekom, owner of the House of Olives, has an aura of the alchemist about him, rather than the farmer. But his experimentation is paying off.

Left behind after the oil has been pressed is the inedible bitter pulp (containing the skin, pip and fruit), which most farmers dismiss as compost.

“I’m currently turning the 2% oil-containing pulp, which even the pigs won’t eat, into braai brickettes,” he said. “Demand has it that I’ll soon be adding my new lemon olive oil to my range.” Hanekom, who chaired the South African Olive Growers’ Association for 10 years, said foreign clients, particularly Italians, say our oil is “far superior” to their own.

Information about the oil’s culinary and health benefits has been widely disseminated in recent years. Popular caterer Jenny Morris cooks exclusively with olive oil. “It’s a carrier and I use it as a rub on various dishes, bringing it to a paste texture with cuts of meat, naked vegetables and for baking.”

Cleanliness is a prime consideration in Morris’s trade. “You can taste the difference in the olive oil when a pressing mat hasn’t been cleaned and all the sediment has been left to rot. But you know exactly what you’re getting locally with our latest technology and high standards.”

With South Africa’s recent importation of 25 olive presses, an international tasting competition on the cards and an increasing number of farmers turning to olive farming, the country seems set to blaze a few olive oil trails.

“The Mediterranean begins and ends with the olive tree,” said the ancients. If they had had an accurate prophetic vision, they would have known to include South Africa in that adage.

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