Olive oil is a vibrant accompaniment, cooking tool and significant ingredient and the oils we’re producing in Victoria are worth seeking out.
Delis, green grocers, farmers markets, supermarkets all have extra virgin olive oils sitting on their shelves. Olives oil from all over the world – Australia, Italy and Spain particularly – but it’s the Victorian olive oil industry that’s creating some luscious gems of viscous liquid that, like their European cousins, tell the story of their region, their cultivation and their harvest.
Olive oil tastings are (almost) as common wine tastings and when you taste olive oil, take a moment to think about the vibrant golden greens and yellows the oils take on. A taste of the oil and you may find yourself discussing the texture and viscosity, considering the aroma and flavour and then looking for fruitiness or herbaceous, grassy characters on the palate which are all pivotal to the character of a good olive oil (it sounds a little like tasting wine!). Local olive oil producers are creating a product that’s complex, delicious and of great quality and we’re embracing what we see.
Like wine and different grape varieties, there are different olive varieties each with their own character and attributes to add to the oil. Manzanilla would be one of the most versatile olives in the orchard, renowned as being a good all-rounder as a table olive and an oil olive, much of the Australian olive oil we buy is made from Manzanilla. Richard Seymour, owner of Mount Zero olives in the Grampians with his parents Jane and Neil says, “If you talk to a processor they hate them [manzanilla olives], as they are notoriously hard to press but for the effort the reward is worth it.”
Mount Zero also grow picual, frantoio and coratina olives on their 200 acres that they bought in 1992 taking on an over-grown olive orchard of trees that had been planted in the 1950s. They don’t irrigate their trees, producing a sturdy, intense fruit that is responsive to its season. Richard explains, “Because we don’t irrigate, as the trees get older their roots go deeper and deeper into the soil. This year there was lots of moisture around and we had a great year, some years are harder than others but when there’s lots of rain and if there was irrigation as well, too much moisture can cause the oil to be lacking in flavour.”
Rose Creek Estate in the outer-suburb of east Keilor sees Tony, Lina and Angleo Siciliano make their olive oil from mostly frantoio but also grow manzanilla and corregiolo olives among other varieties on six acres with 300 trees. The Siciliano’s press their olives over a couple of months underneath their house, “Some of the trees mature earlier, some later,” says Lina. The family have three harvests: pressing green olives first; semi-ripe second and ripe black olives in the third harvest as “you get more oil from the olive,” she explains. It’s the yield of oil to olives that explains why some oils are pricier than others, Tony explains, “ When we press the green olives we get about four to five litres from 100kg olives, semi-ripe olives yield nine to ten litres of oil and the black produces 20-22 litres per 100kg of olives.”
Yield, time and mother nature all bless or hinder any agricultural pursuit and olive oil production is no different. Heading out to the Bellarine Peninsula, Rosalind Ellinger set up Mason’s Creek olive oil back in 1998 on 10 acres, has about 1200 trees and went into commercial production in 2004. Like Mount Zero she doesn’t use irrigation which can be frustrating regarding yield but guarantees a better quality product. “We get about 1200 litres of oil from 10 tonnes of fruit,” says Rosalind, “which may be less than others but it’s a quality product.”
Mason’s Creek grows Kalamata olives (which are only good for the table not for oil), manzanilla (for table and oil), frantoio and corregiola (for oil only). Ellinger finds it best to let her customers know when the olives were picked by placing the harvest year on the bottle, “That way people know how long the oil has been in the bottle,” she says.
Freshness is one of the most important characters of olive oil. It is simply the juice of an fruit and has a quality that deteriorates over time. Olives are traditionally picked in late autumn, early winter – so that’s November, December in Europe and May, June in Australia. The Australian new season’s olive oil was released in June and July and this is the freshest olive oil you can buy at the moment. When buying olive oil, look at the best before or use by date or what is becoming more common is the ‘pressed date’ or ‘harvest’ date you will find on some local products.
Mount Zero olives in the Grampians have started putting a ‘pressed’ date, similar to Mason’s Creek harvest date and it’s important to note that olive oil isn’t good after 24 months. So if you pick up a bottle of oil and from the dates on the bottle it’s been on the shelf a bit too long, keep searching. This wonderful liquid that highlights produce, dresses salads and cooks delicately is deserving of our understanding to get the best out of it.