OIL MASTERED: MAKING SOUTH AFRICAN EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, FROM GROVE TO FACTORY FLOOR
Written by Christi Nortier – Published in the Daily Maverick
Most of South Africa’s olive groves are owned by just 11 growers, who each have more than 50 hectares of trees. TGIFood goes behind the scenes to see how this luxurious liquid is made on a large scale.
Like a cellarmaster, Francois Cilliers’ daily routine depends on the season. Harvest time means the press roars to life and the vats begin to fill up. After a month or so, he’ll start to taste and blend cultivars before the prized liquid is bottled, labelled and distributed throughout South Africa. Only, he’s not making wine – he is extracting, blending and perfecting extra virgin olive oil on an industrial scale.
Olive groves forever on one of South Africa’s largest olive growing farms. Photo: Christi Nortier
Cilliers is the head “oilmaker” at Willow Creek Olive Estate, one of the largest olive oil producers in the southern hemisphere. For his entire life, two olive trees have stood outside his mother’s house. He used to play between olive groves during the heyday of his youth in the Nuy valley, near Worcester.
However, it wasn’t until after he left home and started work at Willow Creek in 1999 that he discovered that the trees he’d seen every day were filled with a prized oil. He had to learn about olive oil, and making it, on the job. Now, he processes huge volumes of oil every year to supply an industry and market which has grown exponentially in the last decade.
Cilliers stands next to the vats used to settle and store the extra virgin olive oil made at Willow Creek Olive Estate. Photo: Christi Nortier
South Africa’s olive oil industry traces its roots back to Italy. It all began with a young Italian, Ferdinando Costa, who planted his Italian trees in the Paarl Valley in the late 1800s. This grove took so well that he geared up to large-scale production in 1925. Ten years later, he pressed his first oil on an Italian mill.
Another Italian, Guilio Bertrand, imported 2,000 trees from Italy to be planted on his farm Morgenster in Somerset West almost 70 years later. He won an SA Olive Lifetime Achievement award in 2012 for importing 90% of all olive cultivars that are in production in South Africa today.
The Western Cape continues to be the cornerstone of the South African industry. It is home to 93% of land used to grow olives in South Africa, according to SA Olive, an association which acts as “the national mouthpiece for the olive industry in South Africa”.
The runner-up is the Eastern Cape, which contains just 3% of the hectares used to grow olives. The Free State contains 2%, North West 1% and other provinces less than that.
At last count in 2018, there were 3,000 hectares of olive groves in South Africa belonging to 174 growers. According to SA Olive, just 11 growers have groves covering more than 50 hectares each. Together, they own nearly 45% of all groves in South Africa. In contrast, the majority of growers, 40%, have less than five hectares of groves each. Together they own only 5% of the total hectares.
The local industry is still relatively small, so South Africa imports olive oil as a supplement. It’s biggest supplier in 2017 was Spain, followed by Italy, Portugal, Greece and Argentina.
Yet South Africa exports some of its oil, mainly to other African countries. The biggest importer of South African olive oil in 2017 was Namibia, followed by Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland, the United Kingdom, Malawi and Lesotho.
In this context, Willow Creek is one of the largest olive farms in South Africa. It grows, presses, bottles and labels its oils on site. It has 160,000 trees from seven cultivars spread out over 192 hectares. It has 55,000 trees in its nursery which it plants or sells to the public. It produces all manner of olive products, but its flagship is the extra virgin olive oil.
Willow Creek farms only olives and covers 192 hectares. Photo: Christi Nortier.
There are no hard and fast rules about what counts as extra virgin olive oil in South Africa. Willow Creek, for example, adheres to SA Olive’s definition, which is based on the definition given by the International Olive Oil Council.
According to them, extra virgin olive oil is the oil as it has been drawn from the olive. It has an acidity below 0,8%, a certain degree of freshness (it doesn’t improve with age like wine) and has a fruity aroma and taste.
Virgin olive oil is still natural but would have minor defects and 2% acidity, making it of lesser quality than extra virgin. Light or refined olive oil has been bleached and deodorised to make it fit for human consumption – and no, it does not have fewer kilojoules than the other oils.
If it is cold extracted or cold-pressed, then it has been processed at a temperature lower than 30 degrees Celsius. Any higher and its vitamins, antioxidants and flavours would be compromised.
Willow Creek has the capacity to do almost everything in-house – from growing its own saplings to putting the labels on its bottles. Young trees start life as cuttings from older, established trees and are incubated in misty tunnels for three months. When they emerge, they have their own root system and can be put in the nursery to adjust to the rhythms of the real world.
Charl van Sittert, the farm manager at Willow Creek, inspects olive tree buds ready to bloom as part of the 2020 crop. Photo: Christi Nortier
After just three months, an olive tree cutting has put down roots. Photo: Christi Nortier
The farm has its own olive tree nursery where it grows a variety of cultivars. Photo: Christi Nortier
They are fed semi-organic fertiliser through a system of drip irrigation and pruned to encourage new growth in all directions. When July comes around, their fruits will be harvested by hand, using rakes and nets. Within a few hours, the olives will be tipped into the oil extraction machine.
The olives will be harvested at a particular ripeness in order to get a specific intensity of flavour in the oil. The greener the olive, the more intense the flavour.
Unlike out in the grove, sunlight, oxygen and heat aren’t allowed near the oil until it’s on someone’s salad or pan. The process is almost completely automated:
Once the oil has been purged and racked, the tasting really begins. Cilliers spends his time mixing and tasting different cultivars until he has a well-balanced oil which he will present to an in-house 10-person tasting panel. Together, they decide on the ratios of the cultivars for that batch. Once the batch runs out, its back to tasting and blending from scratch.
An award-winning olive oil needs to balance fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness in its smell and taste, according to Alinda van Dyk.
“These properties [fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness] need to be in balance to make it award-winning. There is a difference between a quality oil and an award-winning quality oil. In tasting you can also detect defects like oxidisation, rancidity and dirtiness of machinery – those are all things you don’t see in the chemical analysis but which you pick up in the tasting,” she explains.
Olive oil is tasted using dark glasses. This hides the colour of the oil, as it can often be misleading. Photo: Christi Nortier
The first, and most important, part of judging an olive oil is by its smell. The intensity of the smell is rated on a scale and notes are made about the scents – there must be the fruitiness of fresh olive in there, but is there a touch of green cut grass or a dash of herbs?
When tasting olive oil, bitterness and pepperiness come to the fore. The more intense the olive oil, the more bitter and peppery it will be.
As with wine, taste and smell must work in harmony. “You must be able to taste what you smell. Often you get a ‘wow’ smell but the taste disappoints, and vice versa. The trick is to get the balance between smell and taste,” she explains.
This attention to cultivars and intensity makes for a range of oils which cater to many palates and cooking requirements. Willow Creek is lucky enough to be able to produce three distinct extra virgin olive oils, along with a range of nine infused extra virgin olive oils.
Willow Creek is embarking on a mission to make the olive’s journey more tangible to South Africans. It is offering to pair curious South Africans with one of its 160,000 trees. The “tree buddy” will get regular updates on how the particular tree is faring – from budding to bottling – from Willow Creek.
“We want to create an embryonic cord between the customer and the tree,” says Hannes. “We want them to see the realities of olive farming and pressing – for instance, if the tree doesn’t have a fully successful harvest it will have to be blended with oil from other trees. They go on the tree’s journey and reap the rewards, whatever that may be. It’s about the journey, not the bottle of oil at the end.”
He visited Greece this year and noticed that some people would put two spoons of olive oil in their morning coffee – and he’s wondering if he can perhaps make that happen here too.