SA olive oil claims the gold standard

South African extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) grabbed the headlines at the 5th edition of the Sol d’Oro Southern Hemisphere olive oil competition

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South African extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) grabbed the headlines at the 5th edition of the Sol d’Oro Southern Hemisphere olive oil competition in Cape Town recently, besting the South American competition in nine categories, which further establishes South Africa as a premium producer

Sixty-two Southern Hemisphere EVOOs entered the competition and were blind tasted by an international panel of olive oil experts from Italy, Spain, Chile, Peru, Greece and South Africa. During the first round of tasting, the oils are allocated to the three sub-categories of fruity/delicate, fruity/medium or fruity/intense.

The next tasting rounds go on to select the top 10 in each category and are then whittled down to the top five in each category. In the final round, the top three oils for each category are awarded the Sol d’Oro (gold), the Sol d’Argento (silver) and the Sol di Bronzo (bronze) medals.

The newly-instated prize for the overall top-performing producer, the ‘Giulio Bertrand Special Prize’, was awarded to De Rustica Olive Estate. A jubilant Nick Wilkinson, the Chairman of SA Olive, was on hand to share some of the secrets of South Africa’s success in this flourishing niche sector of agriculture.

Can you tell us about South Africa’s fantastic performance at the awards ceremony? This must be fantastic news for an industry that needed a lift?

We’ve had a fantastic awards ceremony. Out of the nine medals awarded, all went to South Africa and, in addition to that, we had a substantial amount of special mentions. Gold awards went to Rio Largo and to De Rustica. De Rustica actually received three medals, it was an unbelievable show. And then in the medium category, Serrado got a gold medal, so it couldn’t have been better and we are all delighted.

What do you attribute the success of those producers to?

We have a dry climate so it produced exceptional oils with very few pests or disease. Maybe the volumes were down but the oil was certainly of an exciting quality, and the dedication and hard work of our producers were evident.

Have you noticed a growth in the olive industry, with tastes evolving toward healthier eating habits and more salads?

The industry continues to grow but what you must bear in mind is that what we consume in this country is two-thirds imported oil, so there’s plenty of scope for the local producers to up their game and produce more. In addition to that, we like to see the olive industry as part of a solution to South Africa’s economic problems and unemployment rate in that there’s immediate import substitution, so there are ready markets. As you well know, it is labour-intensive and it’s suited to a dry climate, so we as the olive industry would like to be part of the growth.

Presumably, olive oil is being mixed with more dishes now to create a plethora of options, expanding its usage from being just a cooking oil?

As the consumer begins to learn, we’re touching the tip of an iceberg. Olive oil has so many uses and so many medical uses too. People are only beginning to understand the taste of olive oil. Fresh, good olive oil actually tastes nice, whether it’s dipped in bread, with or without balsamic vinegar, and you use it on food as you serve it—rather than just cooking in it.

Today, we have witnessed a growth in craft oil in the industry, with some of the smaller farms claiming gold medals against household names.

There are many small producers and a lot of small equipment—we have the benefit of new machinery and new counter bases, so the proof is in the pudding. We can compete with the best of the best worldwide.

Do you travel overseas in order to keep up with the international trends?

That’s up to individual estates but, yes, we keep up with the international trends. Many of our producers enter international competitions and the recognition received from that helps to penetrate the export market where premium prices can be charged.

In terms of the export market, are the fluctuating exchange rates helping the industry?

I think the declining exchange rate helps in that we are a Rand-based productive unit and if the exchange rate declines, we can compete head-on with the Europeans. However, the real advantage of being in the Southern Hemisphere is that our crop is produced six months before the European crop—or if you like, six months after it—so we can offer fresh olive oil when the European olive oil is already six or seven months old.

How does olive oil differ in taste and texture from region to region?

It continues to change. Historically, we were mostly Italian cultivars but there’s been the introduction of new cultivars from Spain and Greece, and, as the world progresses, so we will take on the international flavours that are made in the rest of the world.

The land issue continues to be a challenge for the industry. How do you navigate those waters at SA Olive?

Naturally, there’s a lot of noise at the moment but as farmers, we have to put our heads down and get on with it. We’re not going to know what the outcome of this will be until the politicians come to some conclusion. However, I would hope that we’re in it for the long term. Once an olive crop is planted, it takes seven years before you begin to make money and I would hate to think it might be taken away without compensation. Those are the idiosyncrasies we experience in this country and the sooner there’s certainty, the more people will open their wallets and invest more money in this industry.

In terms of technology usage, have you noticed a rise of that on South African farms?

Yes, we can’t afford to be average in agriculture anymore. You need to be in the top 10% and the aids that assist you are important. I follow the ethos that you cannot control something you don’t measure. We have to measure where water is and we had a horrific year last year—most farms are on 50% or less of water irrigation and you’ve got to be very careful—hence, monitoring water usage, monitoring how your crop is growing through satellite technology and then putting up different traps to test the intensity of pests and diseases become extremely important. You have to be at the top of your game if you’re going to make it in this industry.

How much demand is there for organic oil?

There’s certainly a premium for organic olive oil. It is something that is particularly difficult to farm and the bigger you get, the more difficult it becomes. Additionally, the cost of certification for organic producers is particularly high. And because of the big, wide open spaces in this country, we are susceptible to pests.

Where are the prime olive farming areas in South Africa?

Olive farming has its history in the Mediterranean climate thus it is not suprising that over 95% of our production is in the Western Cape.

There are also developments in the Gauteng area, the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape. Although the farms can produce good olive oil, they’re fighting against the weather patterns, particularly summer rainfall, which, in the Western Cape is more akin to that of a Mediterranean climate. 

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