Central Otago Olive Growers president Sue Stark and Steve
Clark, of Cairnmuir Olives. Photo by Charmian Smith.
In the beginning, Sue Stark used to nurture her olive
trees like babies and would pick up every last olive from the
ground. Now, after more than a decade, she and many other
Central Otago olive growers are not quite as zealous, but they
are still enthusiastic about growing olives and producing oil.
Recently I had the opportunity to talk to some of the growers
and taste several of their oils.
For most of the growers it is a hobby or a lifestyle business
- they do it because they love the product, Mr. Stark,
president of Central Otago Olive Growers, says. She is one of
the growers behind Four Groves olive oil.
For others it's more of a business, but it's certainly not
the ''new gold'' moneymaking venture some people predicted 15
or so years ago, says Steve Clark, of Cairnmuir Olives, who
planted one of the earliest olive groves in the area.
In those days the national organisation Olives New Zealand
was regarded as the first and last word on growing olives,
but they were focused on the North. The generic information
they offered was not always suitable for Central Otago and
was not particularly helpful.
''Statements were made by the hierarchy that you'll never get
good olive oils in Central Otago and that puts you on the
back foot before you start,'' Mr. Stark says.
''Other growers from the North were very helpful and did give
us lots of input, but we were always a bit different in
Central Otago because our olive oil characters were a bit
different. We are producing a savoury olive oil rather than a
sweet, milder one like they do in the North Island,'' she
As with wine growing, Central Otago is on the edge when it
comes to growing olives. An intense frost in 1997 killed some
of the early trees, especially barnea, an Israeli variety
widely planted in Marlborough. Now they grow Tuscan varieties
such as leccino, frantoio, verdale, and minerva, which is a
clone from one of the few leccino trees to survive a
devastating frost in Italy in the 1990s. They also plant on
north-facing slopes and have built up a body of local
information and experience from which new growers can learn.
''When we started, we were all dying to hear how you prune an
olive tree, and it's only now that we are actually coming to
fruition. We've got our trees to the size where we can get a
decent amount of olive oil, but we also have to prune them to
get an annual crop. If we didn't prune them it would be hard
to get a crop each year.
''The other thing we prune for here, is not just for ripeness
- the fruit trees are pruned like bowls to let the light in
because we have these short, intense summers. And we are
pruning for wind as well. Because we don't want to be
climbing up ladders, part of our philosophy is to try and
keep our trees at picking height."
Because of the hard winters and dry summers the growers
generally do not need to spray for disease as they do in the
North. However, the cold winters can take a toll.
After another damaging frost about 10 years ago, some people
panicked and picked their olives too early so it was
impossible to get any oil from them.
It has taken time for people to get over that initial
experience but now people leave them on the trees longer to
ripen. They should be a mix of black, green and splotchy, Mr
He was the first in the region to commission an electric
olive press. A group of other growers bought an old-fashioned
screw press, but found the effort and time it took to do
things manually, and to clean up each day, was far too
difficult, and have since also invested in an electric press.
One of the important things for olive growers wishing to sell
their oil is to have it certified as extra virgin. Olives New
Zealand organises certification of olive oils but it was too
expensive for many of the small local growers, so the Central
Otago group decided to organise their own certification
process through Modern Olives, one of Australia's leading
Certification involves chemical and sensory assessment and
other requirements and provides a quality assurance to
consumers as well as encouraging quality improvement. The
Central Otago oils that have received their certification now
sport a blue and gold sticker proclaiming it.
Because of the climate, Central Otago oils tend to be green,
grassy and pungently peppery, savoury rather than mild and
sweet as is typical of riper northern oils.
When tasting olive oils, look for a balance between
fruitiness, which can be ripe or green, pungency or
pepperiness which is an intense biting sensation in the mouth
and throat, and bitterness, a passing sensation on the tongue
owing to some greenness in the fruit.
The oils I tasted varied from dark green to gold in colour,
from fruity and buttery to grassy and herbal. Some were
pungent and peppery while others, depending on variety and
presumably ripeness and age, were richer and softer, but
pepperiness certainly seems to be a characteristic of Central
The pepperiness that can be disconcerting when tasting oil by
itself is mitigated when complemented by food - normally you
enjoy oil with bread or in a salad or drizzled on other food.