Extra virgin gold

It’s not only premier wines that are grown in the regions of the Western Cape with a Mediterranean climate, explains ERRIEDA DU TOIT: premier extra virgin olive oils are produced here too, and their popularity is gaining ground.

Sometimes we need stories more than food. The olive tree provides both. With its oil, fruit, wood and shade, it has anointed myth and lore, shaped civilisations and sustained cultures since antiquity.

We should set a special place at the table for Athena, the goddess of wisdom, for presenting the tree to humans as an offering of fruitfulness and peace, prosperity and good health.

It nourishes authors and artists. The English novelist Aldous Huxley liked the olive tree “for what it symbolises, first of all … peace with its leaves and joy with its golden oil”. Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of olive trees, with twisted trunks and dense, silvery grey foliage, are some of his best-known works.

While the South African olive industry doesn’t rely on mythological stories of gods or gladiators, its characters are no less colourful, its pioneers no less legendary. One of our local heroes was Piet ‘California’ Cillié, who brought olive trees back from California in the late 1800s. Another was the farmer Jan Minnaar of De Hoop, Paarl, whose first pressing was crowned ‘the finest olive oil in the British Empire’ at the London Show in 1907.

Then there was the young immigrant Ferdinando Costa, who grafted, planted and pressed, finally turning Costas into a household name. Carlo Castiglione introduced new technology to the industry, while the late Guilio Bertrand embraced the kinship between quality wines and olive oil at Morgenster. His achievements include establishing an olive nursery and importing 90% of the olive cultivars farmed with today. Olive oil experts and world-class tasters Reni Hildenbrand and Linda Costa are the trailblazers educating consumers to appreciate this liquid gold.

Now you will find olive trees thriving from Robertson to De Rust, Franschhoek to Hermanus, Stellenbosch to Stilbaai, and in Porterville and the nearby Riebeek Valley. Prince Albert and Van Wyksdorp in the Karoo produce olives, as do Caledon and Calitzdorp. Olive groves dot the landscapes of Bot River and the Breede River and make their presence felt in Wellington, Wolseley, Worcester and beyond.

Producers like Nick Wilkinson balance past and present. His Rio Largo extra virgin olive oil has won multiple awards and proven the Scherpenheuwel Valley between Worcester and Robertson on the southern bank of the Breede River to be true olive country. “What makes us successful is combining modern technology such as our state-of-the-art olive processing and bottling plant with biological farming methods and principles that haven’t changed since those original Olympians cultivated olives.”

Although an estimated 5 000ha have been planted to olive trees in South Africa, many growers produce oil from 5ha or less. And the olive oils they produce are lauded as being among the finest in the world, even though the South African industry is young compared to those of Italy and Spain. “[Being young] counts in our favour,” says Karien Bezuidenhout, manager of the industry’s association, SA Olive. “Our producers use the latest technology, and being relatively small, they can pay meticulous attention to detail.”

The increasing demand for local oils impacts positively on the country’s economy, especially in the Western Cape, where 90% of the industry is located. “South Africans consume up to 8 000 tonnes of extra virgin olive oil annually, of which a third is local,” Karien says. “About 1.4 million litres of extra virgin oil was produced last year. As olive production is labour intensive and forms part of the government’s National Development Plan, more growth in local production is predicted.”

Olive devotee Glynis van Rooyen, founder of the annual Guide to Extra Virgin Olive Oil in South Africa, believes the respect for South African olive oil is a reflection of the local producers’ passion and commitment to quality. Moreover, the health-boosting properties of extra virgin olive oil is an additional stimulus to the industry. Picking up a tinge of bitterness and pepperiness? That’s the health-supporting antioxidants in top-notch olive oil talking.

Olive oil and wine have always been intertwined. Both speak of the spirit of the place, combined with the passion and expertise of the producer. “The kinship between olive oil and wine lies in the climate,” says Glynis. “Wine and olives both enjoy the Western Cape’s Mediterranean climate. For wine growers, the advantage of planting olives is that the crop ripens after grapes. As olives are also labour intensive, they offer an additional crop and additional employment for labourers.”

Extra virgin olive oil is as finely nuanced as good wine, with styles that vary from delicate (fresh and fruity in aroma and flavour) and medium (well-balanced fruit, peppery aftertaste and bitterness) to robust (intensely fruity and pungent with a pronounced bitter aftertaste). Some oils are fruity, clean and fresh and some are green and grassy, with a hint of mown hay, while others are reminiscent of apple or melon, fresh nuts, rocket leaves, green tomatoes, even artichokes. There is one major difference, though: olive oil doesn’t benefit from ageing as wine does. Fresh is best.

EVOOs of origin Stellenbosch

The Stellenbosch region has 83ha under olive oil cultivation. Local producers of extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) include:

Hidden Valley: Medium and intense EVOO (Leccino, Coratina, Frantoio, Mission, Favola cultivars).

Tokara: Delicate, medium and intense fruity EVOO (Frantoio, Leccino, Coratina, FS17, Mission, Nocellara de Belice).

Chaloner: EVOO of medium intensity and multifaceted aroma derived from eight different cultivars (traditional pepperiness from Frantoio; flower scent from Nocellara de Belice).

Olives Go Wild: Selects the best-quality olive oils for its customised blend of medium intensity. Unique packaging.

Friesland Farm: Quality EVOO (Frantoio, Leccino).

Kleinood: A full-bodied and elegant oil, De Boerin (Coratina, Favolosa, Delicata, Leccino, Frantoio)

Portion 36 Olive Orchards: Five oils from five cultivars and the estate blend, ranging from medium and well balanced to robust.

Saltare: A blend of Frantoio, Leccino and Nocellara de Belice, with medium intensity and vibrant, grassy aromas.

Uva Mira: EVOO sourced from the 500 trees on the estate.

Delaire Graff: Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is a bespoke blend that uses olives grown and pressed across the valley.

De Morgenzon: Follows a time-honoured tradition of bottling its extra virgin olive oil by hand.

Glenelly: Glenelly’s extra virgin olive oil comes in a classy gift canister.

Grades of olive oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil Pure, natural, unrefined olive oil, with no additives, preservatives or defects. The fruit is cold pressed (crushed below 30°C). Free acidity less than 0.8%.

Virgin Olive Oil Natural, unrefined olive oil, but its free acidity level can be up to 2%.

Olive Oil A refined olive oil, usually blended with a small amount of extra virgin oil. It is often sold as ‘light’ or ‘pure’ olive oil. Refined oil has none of the natural antioxidants or taste of extra virgin olive oil.

The darker side and how to avoid it

Fake and inferior quality olive oils passed off as extra virgin olive oil have been part of the trade since the era of Classical Greece. Don’t be deceived: buy local and avoid the bargain imports. Also, look out for the SA Olive CTC (commitment to compliance) seal on the label, recommends Karien. “It indicates that the content is 100% pure, fresh South African extra virgin olive oil, produced on the farm during the year referred to.”

“Where possible, buy from the farm down your road for the freshest and best,” adds Glynis. “Check the date of production and don’t buy anything older than 24 months. Buy oil in dark glass bottles or airtight vacuum packs and in small quantities so that you use it within a reasonable time. Store it in a cool, dark place, but not the fridge.”

Visit the Guide to Extra Virgin Olive Oil for comprehensive information about producers, awards, medicinal and health benefits and recipe ideas.