Hunting the 'Mmm' factor in olive oil

My first taste of an olive oil to savour came unexpectedly. Our old chartered schooner dropped anchor in the bay of Panormitis on the Greek island of Symi in the late afternoon. Baking against the arid hillside were a monastery, an olive grove and a rudimentary taverna, just a kitchen with a grapevine pergola to shade the tables.
That evening the taverna served us the only course on offer: flame-grilled chicken, a leafy salad with a dousing of olive oil and bread. Our talkative group went silent. Even the children sighed, “mmm” as they chewed.

The tavern-keeper spoke no English and I speak no Greek, so in sign language I asked if the oil came from the monastery.

He nodded, pointing to the olive grove and then to the monastery. Then he steered me into the kitchen where a barrel of oil stood just inside the door. He dipped in a ladle, filled a plastic water bottle with oil and charged me about one rand.

That was 20 years ago. Since then the olive oil from Symi has been my benchmark. I have been searching for the “Mmm” factor ever since, usually with more success when I find olive oil from Greece than from elsewhere.

The Greeks consume over 20kg of olive oil each in a year. Greek growers want good oil for themselves, their friends and family and they make sure they get it. They keep about a third of their oil. Most of the rest goes to Italy to be mixed with Italian oil and branded as Italian, according to athensnews.gr.

Greek olive oil farmers and producers are small, the smallest in the Mediterranean, with tiny groves averaging 3,2ha each, so they can gather their olives and press them within the hour. Together these small growers produce over half a million tons a year. Most press their oil in rooms the size of a garage. So I figured that I was close to finding the “Mmm” factor here at home when I heard the word garagiste (small wine-makers) applied to some of our producers.

Last year small producers won all the top prizes at the South African Olive Oil Industry Awards.

Two of the winners, Chris Everson from the Franschhoek Olive Oil Company and his neighbour Richard Atkinson from the Waterfall River Farm, say their olive oil had the advantage of being grown and pressed by small producers, garagistes, who can choose the olives they use; a mix of green and ripe olives for the perfect balance of flavour and quality. They are able to press their olives within three hours of picking. Both men have day jobs: they are television journalists.

Everson believes small producers have an unfair advantage and should be judged separately in the competitions.

“Ten years ago few South Africans used olive oil. Morgenster and Willow Creek changed that. And their international awards put South African olive oil on the map.”

These two producers are no longer small and last year won silver, not gold awards.

Six years ago I found a robust olive oil in unbranded brandy bottles at the Pitkos Padstal in the Nuy valley. It was a third of the price of the other oil sold in pretty stone jars from Willow Creek. The unlabelled oil became my standard. I bought dozens of bottles a year and later discovered when I gave a local woman a lift that the oil was also from Willow Creek. In reply to the obvious question she said, “Daar was nie genoeg bottles nie” (there weren’t enough bottles).

“Is jy seker dis die selfde olie?” (are you sure it’s the same oil), I asked.

“Dis die selfde, van die selfde vatte,” (it’s the same from the same vats), she replied. Now, unfortunately, they seem to have enough bottles.

Their prize-winner is labelled Director’s Reserve and sells at a premium.

For eight years Morgenster has been winning prizes for the best blended olive oil in the world, often at Italian contests.

Their new oil is wonderfully green. It has an intense aromatic pepperiness with a slight bitterness on the tongue. As good as my memory of oil from Symi? Nearly.

The Morgenster olive oil maker, Gerrie Duvenage, believes the judges last year preferred the blander, less intensely flavoured oil of the smaller producers. He says Morgenster’s international awards are won in the intense or medium intensity categories. At Morgenster they do not filter the oil.

“The sediment adds flavour,” he tells me. “It takes about a month for the sediment to settle and then we tap it off above the sediment.”

When I ask why olive oil brought from 6 000miles away is cheaper than local oil, he tells me that imported olive oil comes mainly from ancestral groves and the equipment used is often just as old. The Mediterranean producers have almost no set-up costs and few overheads.

Symi, however, no longer produces olive oil commercially. The Abbot at the monastery died two years ago, the press broke and with both gone, production ceased. But Adriana Shum, a South African who co-edits The Symi Visitor, tells me plans are being put in place to produce organic oil from Symi.

Olive oil: the best of the best

Morgenster’s unfiltered extra virgin olive oil was judged the Best in Competition last week in Stellenbosch at the 2007 SA Olive Oil Awards for Extra Virgin Olive oil.

Other olive oil producers tell me South Africa has a master olive oil maker in Gerrie Duvenage from Morgenster who uses gravity and time to rid the oil of sediment. Duvenage is puzzled that other producers choose to filter their oil. Some use mechanical filters; smaller producers use cotton wool.

“It’s time consuming to produce unfiltered oil. The process needs careful management and patience, but the rewards are greater,” says Morgenster’s deputy oil maker, Wayne Kitney. This is possibly why Morgenster’s olive oil is often judged the best in South Africa and the world.

Small producer Chris Everson says Morgenster sets the standard for the olive oil industry by consistently producing such high-quality oil—and in large quantities.

Gold medal winners in the competition were:

  • Burgundy Bourgogne, 021 8764623, burgundybourgogne@saol.com. Oil is available from the farm near Franschhoek, from French Connection in Franschhoek and the Olive Tree in Stellenbosch.
  • Groote Vallei, 023 2300660, johnfi@wol.co.za. Oil is available from the farm near Tulbach or from Tapenade at Cresta Centre, Randburg.
  • Hamilton Russell, 028 3123595, hrv@hermanus.co.za. Oil is available from Melissa’s Stores in the Cape and from Tapenade in Randburg.
  • Hillcrest Estate , 0825762182 gerhard@hillcrestfarm.co.za Oil is available from their Durbanville farm, from Tapenade in Randburg, Blakes in Rondebosch and Constantia Uitsig’s farm stall.
  • Morgenster (www.morgenster.co.za), 021 8521738, info@morgenster.co.za. Oil is available from all major retailers and from the farm near Somerset West.
  • Olyfberg, 021 8828525, induscom2@mweb.co.za. Olyven Houdt, 082 9613380, olyvenhoudtfarm@easycoms.co.za. Oil is available from the farm near Stilbaai. A small quantity is unfiltered.

Most of the gold medal winners receive buyers at the farms. Producers are often small farmers and visits should be by appointment.—Marilyn Honikman

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