It’s 7am and the sun is rising over Olio Bello’s organic olive grove in Cowaramup, revealing row after wondrous row of fruit-laden trees, ripe for the picking. Sturdy branches are being shaken by teams of pickers focused on collecting the day’s bounty – already their buckets are overflowing with fruit.
General manager Brett Roberts arrives on a tractor, ready to whisk away the gathered goodness for immediate pressing. He plucks a dark olive from a nearby tree, twirls it between his fingers, and smiles with satisfaction.
“The degree of ripeness of an olive variety is determined by several factors including colour, oil and water content, destalking, and a great deal of empirical knowledge,” he explains. “We have 10,000 trees in our grove, each one being individually nurtured.
“It may take a year or two to work our way around the grove, but we want to ensure all of our trees are in peak condition. There are 14 European varieties grown here that we use in our extra virgin and infused olive oils, and each variety has subtle differences with unique characteristics.”
It would be easy to linger a while longer amidst the twisted trunks, but the olives must be pressed, so I jump on the tractor and we weave and bump our way through the grove, bound for the processing facility.
Once the olives have been dropped at the loading dock, they are catalogued, weighed and then washed with filtered rainwater to prepare them for pressing.
“We cold-press the olives on our Pieralisi pressing mill,” Brett says. “This extraction process gently kneads the fruit to extract all of the precious oils, and is adjusted to allow the oil to flow from the paste at the required temperature. The mill processes the olives from fruit to paste within one hour, and the oil is immediately pumped into tanks to settle for up to four months.”
I follow him into the cool room where I am surrounded by enormous stainless steel tanks filled to the brim with delicious oils. Brett gently unseals one of the vessels, and fills a bottle with the liquid gold.
“This is oil at its purest,” he says. “It’s completely organic, unfiltered and is in
its most natural form, which means it has the highest nutritional and flavour content.”
I taste some, savouring the deliciously herbaceous and peppery flavours.
With its high levels of monounsaturated fats (that’s the good ones, of course), antioxidants and vitamins, such delicate extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) are intrinsic to the Mediterranean diet, and it’s easy to see how they could become intrinsic to anyone’s. But just to be sure, I sample a citrus-infused oil… and I’m hooked.
Not all oils are created equal, however. Some may lack depth of flavour or complexity, and have little to no aroma or pungency, which I am told is usually a result of oils that have been heavily processed or have lost their freshness. That is certainly not the case here.
I leave Olio Bello with my tastebuds tantalised, and drop in on another grove, where I hope to learn more. By the time I’m wandering between the trees at Vasse Virgin, the sun is beating down from the cloudless sky, and it doesn’t take long before I stumble upon one of the grove’s directors, who is meticulously checking the fruit to determine if it’s ready for picking.
“Judging the time to pick is as much an art as it is a science,” says Mark Bahen. “The fruit turns from green to black during the ripening process. In deciding when to harvest, we try to balance a number of factors, because the fruit colour is not always an accurate indicator of its physiological ripeness.
“Olives can look ripe by having a black skin colour, but the flesh can be less than ripe, so we continually taste-test the fruit as it ripens. Typically, the fruit in a bin will look about 50 per cent yellowy green and 50 per cent black.”
As the olives ripen, the oil quantity rises, Mark says, but the fruits’ polyphenols (responsible for the flavour complexity and antioxidants in the olives) begin to dissipate. “The challenge we have is to extract an acceptable oil percentage while preserving an adequate level of polyphenols to boost flavour intensity, antioxidant levels and shelf life.”
At Vasse Virgin, the fruit is handpicked and processed in 24 hours to preserve freshness and to reduce oxidation. “EVOO is simply the juice of a freshly crushed piece of fruit, which is what qualifies it as the highest standard of olive oil and is why it’s so superior in terms of flavour and health benefits,” says Mark. “But it should be consumed within 12 to 18 months of being processed or it will lose those valued properties.”
The Margaret River region isn’t the only place in WA to grow olives, and I decide my appreciation of the fruit warranted a visit to another producer some distance away.
As I head north towards the quintessential farming community of York, there’s
a drastic shift in the landscape: gone are the verdant rolling pastures, towering forests and cascading waterways, replaced by an impressive backdrop of open farmland, green belts of trees and magnificent granite rocks.
When I arrive at the York Olive Oil Company, it is to find owners Arnaud and Jenny Courtin sliding olives gently down the branches, allowing the fruit to drop on a net below. The soft rain of purple, black and green olives is simply mesmerising – and I’m seized by the urge to help out.
I soon discover that these softly spoken masters have been contract-processing olives for growers around the state for the past 15 years, while also inviting groups to get their hands dirty by picking and processing olives from the farm.
“We love working outdoors and find it rewarding to be able to impart our knowledge of traditional olive-oil making,” Arnaud says. “There is something satisfying about taking a bunch of fresh olives off the tree and seeing it through to the bottling stage. We are finding a growing number of groups book in to pick olives in the morning then stay to watch them be pressed into oils in the afternoon.”
The process provides a wonderful opportunity to experience a connection with the land, and that’s an underlying element of what drives these farmers on. As the community’s relationship with food deepens and questions are raised about food provenance, more and more producers like the Courtins are opening their farm gates to educate the public on farming practices and the importance of buying locally.
So whether the end product is sweet, bitter, florally or peppery, the experience of picking and pressing your own olives is one that will pay dividends on many levels. After all, what could be healthier than time spent in the great outdoors, creating one of the freshest, tastiest and most nutritionally rewarding foods our state has to offer? You’ll be hard-pressed to find something better.
A matter of taste
Tasting olive oil is akin to tasting wine, and can be a wonderful sensory experience…if you know how to do it right.
Start by pouring a small amount of oil into a glass and covering it with your hand to allow the aromas to intensify. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute and then inhale. You may smell freshly cut grass, green leaf, green tomato, tropical fruits or cinnamon, to name a few. The aromas are a critical part of an oil’s flavour.
Now it’s time to taste. A good olive oil should display a nice balance of fruitiness, bitterness, pungency and freshness. Take a sip and draw in some air. This will help to release the flavour. Hold the oil on the tongue for a few seconds before swallowing a small amount. Assess the oil for the amount of fruit, bitterness and pungency (peppery sensation) present. Notice the flavours that linger after you have finished. A great oil will have a harmonious blend of fruit, bitterness and pungency.
Pick of the bunch
Here are our top four olive-picking experiences around the state.
Olio Bello Want a behind the scenes look at how Olio Bello produces its delicious oils? Go on one of its harvest and pressing tours, for everything you need to know about turning those grape-sized fruits into liquid gold.
36 Armstrong Road, Cowaramup (08) 9755 9771, oliobello.com.
Walkalina Olive Park Pick fleshy jumbo kalamata olives from this grove and collect your freshly pressed oil the very same day, thanks to an onsite processor. If you’re looking to pick table olives, calling ahead is recommended: a 10kg harvest minimum applies.
Lot 24 Hancock Place, Gingin 0417 900 192.
Vasse Virgin Watch the olives being processed while you wander the food room, which has a variety of gourmet condiments such as estate-grown olives, olive oils, dukkah, chilli sauces, pesto, jams, mustards, vinaigrettes and pasta sauces, all for your tasting pleasure.
135 Puzey Road, Wilyabrup (08) 9755 6111, vassevirgin.com.au.
York Olive Oil Company Bring a picnic, spend the day outdoors and watch the olives you picked in the morning being pressed into oil in the afternoon. If you wish to take home your freshly picked and pressed EVOO, bookings are essential, because a minimum of 50kg must be collected.
254 Ashworth Road, York (08) 9641 2200, yorkoliveoil.com.au.