Fine Olive Oil in New Zealand

by Reiss Gunson on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 02:09

Why an article on olive oil on a coffee blog I hear you ask? Fair enough, and you might be right, but I have a broad interest in delving into the nuances of things that not so long ago were regarded as commodities; uniform, homogeneous, undifferentiated & price takers in the market place. For hundreds of years now wine has been evaluated in fine detail, then much more recently coffee, and now it seems, olive oil. I found this article interesting, in particular the concerns about the integrity of labeling standards for olive oil & wonder if we should have similar concerns regarding coffee. Enjoy…or ignore!

I found this article on page 28 of the Oct/Nov 2008 edition of the NZInspired magazine & it is reproduced here with their permission.

Could Kiwi extra virgin olive oil be the new sauvignon blanc? Paul Holmes, the well-known New Zealand television and radio broadcaster â and award-winning olive oil producer â certainly thinks so.

Let me tell you straight up why you should be very careful when you buy European â extra virginâ olive oils. Because they might not be extra virgin, thatâ s why. In fact, they probably wonâ t be anything near extra virgin. Most likely, they will be processed, manufactured, washed and full of solvents. The truth is, unless you know exactly where the oil comes from and you are sure of the supply chain, or you have seen old Senor Salvatore himself squeeze the oil out of the olives and put it in a bottle, you can count on nothing.

Such is the looseness and corruption of olive oil production and distribution in the principal European olive oil countries of Spain, Italy and Greece.

New Zealand olive oil, however, trades on its freshness, quality and integrity. And we are now making plenty of it, too. The countryâ s oldest commercial plantings are in their second decade (see Olives in New Zealand fact box, page 30) and between ten to fifteen years ago there was a mass planting of olive trees around New Zealand as growers began to realise the same climate and soils that were starting to produce such excellent wines could do the same for extra virgin olive oil.

And so it has proved: Nelsonâ s Moutere Grove extra virgin olive oil was named one of the best 200 oils in the world by the prestigious German hospitality magazine Der Feinschmecker and it also won International Olive Oil Awards in 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008; Suprema a Situ, an oil produced by the Wellington City Council on, of all places, Mt. Victoria, won a gold medal at the prestigious Los Angeles County Fair in 2005 (of New Zealandâ s 26 extra virgin olive oil entries, nine were awarded gold medals and 11 received silver medals); and my own Paul Holmes extra virgin olive oil has won gold and silver medals nationally.

Like so much of the produce that is grown in our fresh air, extraordinary sunlight and young soils, New Zealandâ s olive oils are rich in character, very fruity and peppery. In fact, theyâ re so good you can even drink them: based on strong scientific evidence that is recognised by the American Food and Drug Administration, extra virgin olive oil producers may soon be able to alert consumers to the fact that downing a few tablespoons a day can do your heart a world of good.

With a new understanding of the benefits a Mediterranean diet affords, New Zealand stands to profit greatly from an explosion in the use of olive oil around the world. And extra virgin olive oil, with its powerful antioxidants, its ability to discourage cholesterol, its apparent benefits to the heart (especially following bypasses) and its absence of bad fats is now rated as the best of the bunch.

Unlike some large-scale European producers, the olive oils that New Zealand companies export are genuine extra virgin, the best and most natural form of olive oil (see box below for an explanation of the different kinds of oils available). And controls on the claims that are written on the labels â such as printing the pressing date â are very strict.

Olives New Zealand, an industry body that aims to enhance production and emphasise quality, says the countryâ s effective border controls have prevented the arrival of major deleterious olive diseases and producers of premium quality olive oil aimed at niche markets are able to trade off and profit from the countryâ s clean, green image. Also, significantly, New Zealandâ s new season extra virgin olive oils are available on the market when the northern hemisphere product is six months old.

It is possible to grow olives in most regions of New Zealand. Currently, the main producing areas are Northland, Waiheke Island, Hawkeâ s Bay, Wairarapa, Kapiti, Nelson, Marlborough and Canterbury, but there are also smaller numbers of growers in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and Central Otago. Hawkeâ s Bay, where I produce extra virgin olive oil amongst the sunny hills south of Hastings at Mana Lodge, produces some 50 percent of New Zealandâ s olive oil.

To some, these Kiwi oils are thought to be a little lively to the palate, but according to Rosemari Delegat, of Delegat Wines, one of New Zealandâ s largest family-owned and family-managed
winemakers, this was the very problem the New Zealand wine industry faced back in the early nineties when it was trying to establish its sauvignon blancs. Too fruity, everyone said. And, when compared to the wines from France, it must have seemed so. Yet it was just a matter of time and persistence before the New Zealand taste was not only accepted but valued greatly. And the way things are going â and growing â our olive oil industry could be similarly lucrative.

At present, the United States imports around 300 million litres of olive oil a year, most of it from Europe, an increase of more than 70 percent in the last five years. And the subsidised European producers are rubbing their hands with glee. But how much of the oil they send is going to be extra virgin?

Frankly, itâ s difficult to know. In August, a New York Times examination of the olive oil invasion from Europe reported a study of 30 olive oils labelled â virginâ that were tested last year by the Food and Drug Administration. Only 18 were labelled correctly. The falsely labelled oils contained a blend of pressed and refined olive oils, instead of only pressed oils, and five bottles labelled â virginâ contained no olive oil at all. So, just under half were crooked.

Olive oil consumption is also soaring in the UK, up 30 percent since 2001. But the British buyer is at the mercy of the racketeers as well. In Italy, back in March, police arrested 23 people and confiscated 85 farms when they uncovered a gang using low-grade oils from all over the Mediterranean and passing them off as the finest Italian product. This gives us an idea of the potential scale of the fraud there. Put a flash label on it and who knows what it is? Some old canola, perhaps, from round the back of a shed in Libya?

Blame the lack of regulatory muscle and those wicked old subsidies for making the rort so tempting. The Italian Farmersâ Union reckons half of the Italian oil sold within Italy alone is either adulterated or not Italian at all. But the Europeans, who produce more than 80 percent of the worldâ s olive oil, are a very powerful bloc and are able to a great extent resist controls from EU headquarters in Brussels on what goes both into a bottle and onto it.

Sure, the bottle will look smart, the labelling attractive and sophisticated, yet time and again in New Zealand and, as I found recently on a trip to Shanghai, which is being flooded with cheap European olive oil, the Tuscan or Spanish â extra virgin olive oilâ is of shockingly low quality.
It is not just flat, inferior oil. In most cases it is stale and rancid and it sits on the tongue like old fat. Good, fresh, extra virgin olive oil does not behave like that. Our best New Zealand extra virgin olive oils dance round the palate, full of life.

My own extra virgin olive oil is now exported to the UK, the US and to parts of Asia, where awareness of the product is growing. Itâ s also doing very well in Ireland and is used by at least one Michelin-starred chef in Dublin. And one thing you can be sure of, it is fresh, clean, natural, untouched and made with pride.

New Zealand producers are relatively small and new on the scene, so we have to be the best. We do not do corruption. We do not play silly games. We respect extra virgin olive oil, one of the most ancient, historic, most loved and beneficial of foods â and now one of New Zealandâ s most promising agricultural export industries.

Paul Holmes Extra Virgin Olive Oil is currently seeking an active distribution partner in the UK. For more information check or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

For olive oil to be considered extra virgin it has to be cold pressed, meaning that the pressing takes place at room temperature, with no heat or chemicals used in the extraction of the oil. The olives are crushed and the oil goes straight into the tanks where it rests for a couple of months to settle before bottling. It is declared extra virgin if, when tested, it has a fatty acid content of less than 0.8 percent. Almost all the olive oil produced in New Zealand is extra virgin.
Virgin oils are still produced by pressing or centrifugation and without heat or chemicals to assist in their extraction, but they are the oils that havenâ t quite made the premium grade.

The rest of them are not worth touching. â 100 percent olive oilâ , â Pure olive oilâ , â Genuine olive oilâ , or â Lite olive oilâ are all highly processed oils where the fruit is crushed again and again at very hot temperatures and chemicals, including solvents, are used to flush the last of the oil from the pulp. Some of the oil is so ruthlessly extracted that it needs dye before it is bottled. And â Lite olive oilâ is a deception. It simply means the bottle is light on olive oil. Avoid labels that say â Packed in Italyâ or â Packed in Spainâ , as they tell you nothing about where the oil is from, how old it is, when it was pressed, how it was made or whether it is even olive oil at all.

Itâ s a surprise to many, New Zealanders included, to learn there is evidence of olive trees growing in New Zealand as early as 1830. However, it was another 150 years before a commercial olive industry was established. Charles Darwin documented the existence of olives in New Zealand when he visited the northern-most region of the country in 1835. And between 1860 and 1880, two prominent early settlers, Logan Campbell and Sir George Grey, independently attempted to establish an olive industry. Logan Campbell imported 5000 olive seedlings from South Australia but the venture only lasted a few years before it was abandoned, apparently because the yield and flavour of the oil did not match the Italian oils he was familiar with. Sir George Greyâ s efforts to produce olive oil also failed but there are no records to tell us why.

In 1877, a report entitled The Report on Olive Culture was presented to the government of the day, emphasising the potential for olive growing in New Zealand. The report was ignored, possibly because of the experiences of Grey and Campbell. It wasnâ t until 1960 that olive trees were imported and cuttings also taken from old, well-established trees and planted in trial blocks. Reports said olives should not be grown for oil production, but for fruit for pickling.
In 1971 eight olive trees were donated by the Cretan people in remembrance of New Zealand soldiers. These trees were distributed around the country and those propagated from one particular Cretan tree named Kala produced fruit more suitable for table olives. In 1986, Israeli-born Gidon Blumenfeld retired with his wife to Marlborough and set about developing an olive industry in New Zealand. By 1990, The Olive Grove and nursery were well established and received orders for trees from all around New Zealand. By the mid 1990s, the industry experienced a boom, particularly in Marlborough, the region noted for producing sauvignon blanc. Two specialist associations, The New Zealand Olive Association (now renamed as Olives New Zealand) and Oliveti, were formed to undertake research and provide networking opportunities. And it is only relatively recently the emphasis has changed to the production of high quality extra virgin olive oil. (Source: Olives New Zealand)

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