Making South African extra virgin olive oil, from grove to factory floor
Most of South Africa’s olive groves are owned by just 11 growers, who each have more than 50 hectares of trees. This article 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.
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.
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, the association that acts as “the national mouthpiece for the olive industry in South Africa”.
The runner-up is the Eastern Cape, which has just 3% of the hectares used to grow olives. The Free State has 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.
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 30C. 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. The farm has its own olive tree nursery where it grows a variety of cultivars.
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…..
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