Olive oil

Olive oil

Stefano de Pieri
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Earl Carter

Nothing in the food industry has stirred up passions – and moved dollars around – like the recent and burgeoning olive oil industry in Australia. Back in 1996 I was making my own first experiments in olive oil production out of a few trees on the Sturt Highway, in Buronga, NSW, with my mate Gianni Grigoletto, an industrial chemist who was struck by the olive oil-making fever. Since then millions of trees have gone into the ground from Queensland to Tasmania, from Victoria to Western Australia.

Australians are slowly taking to olive oil, perhaps not as quickly as hoped, but they are converting. As oil prices come down due to increased production, oil becomes slightly more affordable. Picking, crushing, transporting, bottling and labelling, storing and transporting again all conspire to keep the price of oil high.

Most Australians tend to shop in supermarkets, and it is mighty hard to get good oil into price-driven outlets. The future for olive oil is still in the hands of passionate, small producers striving for quality. All we need is to persuade consumers – or a section of them – that olive oil is as worthy of immediate consumption as a bottle of Shiraz. There are many people who knock over a $30 bottle of wine in a matter of minutes. A bottle of oil, at the same price, is capable of producing greater gastronomic pleasure, but it is looked upon as a luxury.

My olive oil journey began somewhere in Balranald, lower NSW, about 180 kilometres from Mildura, a few years ago. Determined to have my own label, I bought the contents of two groves established by Sicilian migrants in the 1950s. Little did I know that I needed equipment to harvest, bins, a fork lift, a truck and, above all, a team of fast pickers. Bruce and Jenny Chalmers came into my life, in the way that angels do: they provided a team of fast (mostly) Cambodian pickers, the truck, the bins, the fork lift and the cash flow.

Determined to keep my family out of this ordeal (they thought I was a little crazy to be involved in an industry that we did not understand), I went off on a chilly May morning on my motorcycle, thinking I’d get to Balranald in a flash. I underestimated the coldness of the Australian morning: at Robinvale, 60 kilometres down the road, I began feeling the effects of hypothermia and halfway between Robinvale and Balranald, took off my undies and wrapped them around my neck to stop myself from freezing. Fourteen days of picking ensued, and I was oil rich in a few weeks.

I completed my crazy and irrational project by purchasing a container of bottles from Italy, I was kept in oil for a long time. Somewhere, sometime during that period I met Peter Caird, oil-maker of Victorian Olive Groves (VOG). Besides Peter and his partner, VOG consisted of two more families, the Harts and the Zitos. Soon a partnership was formed between all of us and now VOG, with its proud label, and gold medal earned in Italy against 700 competitors, is proudly sold in many outlets, including David Jones and Harvey Nichols in London. From undies around the neck to David Jones – that’s my idea of fun!

Types of oil

Many consumers, even those who are keen olive oil consumers, are confused about the names of the olive varieties that appear on labels. The question I am asked all the time is, which oil is best? There is no short answer. We have over 100 varieties planted in Australia, some dating back to the 1800s. Various trials were made and varieties such as manzanillo, verdale and barouni were planted with great enthusiasm even as recently as ten years ago, before people realised that perhaps they were not the right varieties for our conditions. Growers are a little more knowledgeable today, and what follows is the current commonly shared wisdom – the most succinct overview, a rough guide to understanding some of the names that appear on olive oil labels.

Manzanillo: Originally a Spanish varietal and not used much for oil in Spain. In Australia, manzanillo probably represents more than 30 per cent of all plantings. It is a tricky fruit to process, but is capable of producing top-quality oils that are initially quite unbalanced. It would appear that this oil actually benefits from short-term rest before consumption, something that usually is not done. Manzanillo is high in bitterness and has a peppery finish. The bitterness is often much reduced when the oil comes into contact with food.

Verdale: May be of French origin and produces one of the best oils in terms of taste and nose. The variety was planted extensively simply because it was available. The oil smells of fresh green grass and displays a light pungency. It is still my favourite oil to use when fresh. Unfortunately it does not produce much oil – producers are lucky to get 10 litres of oil, sometimes less, from 100 kg of olives. So verdale has been relegated to the back burner, with literally thousands of trees here and there not harvested because of their low yields.

Nevadillo blanco: This Spanish variety makes good oil in warmer climates. Nutty and grassy, with a great bite at the end.

Picual: Another Spanish variety, and a newcomer. The only tastings I have seen come from trees that are not much more than three years old. It is nutty on the palate with pleasant aromas. It promises to do well, especially as it seems to yield 24 per cent oil, a vast improvement on other varieties.

Arbequina: Also Spanish, and one of the mainstays of the Spanish oil industry. It looks promising, but Australian plantings are only very recent, so it is too early to tell.

Sevillano: Another Spanish variety that is much better for preserving than for oil. It displays an odd palate and does not look like it is destined for greatness.

Frantoio/corregiola/paragon: They are really close relatives. Frantoio is very much Tuscan. These all perform well in southern Australia and yield at least 25 per cent oil, with immediate balance of nose, aroma and taste. Big and bold, and also good for pickling.

Leccino: Another Italian. The omens are great. Produces lots of oil with a distinctive character, but once again, it is too early to say.

Barnea: An Israeli cultivar destined to become a favourite for the blenders of oil. It is a smooth oil without rough edges.

Imported versus Australian

My suggestion is simple. If you use a lot of oil, by all means buy the imported in the 3 or 4-litre cans. But for all your raw use of oil – to finish a dish, to dress a salad or boiled veggies, to complete mash potatoes, to liven up a soup, to drench bruschetta, to drizzle over grilled fish – use a fresh Australian oil.

Brian and Lynne Chatterton, respectively former Minister for Agriculture and agriculture adviser under the Dunstan government of South Australia, who now live in Umbria in central Italy, put out a very interesting and personal book titled Discovering Oil. It is a great read on their personal olive oil journey. On the market for oil, they write: ‘St Francis gave Umbria its title of “land of saints”, but the Tuscans perform the miracle of the olive oil every day. The 300,000 tonnes of imported oil is simply made to disappear. We have never seen a bottle of olive oil in Italy or in NZ or Australia that has been labelled “Blend of Italian and Tunisian or Spanish olive oil”, yet that must be the case. Tuscany exports more oil that it produces’.

So, if you can help the Australian producers, do so. At least many of us are contactable; we have websites and phone numbers. We are happy to get feedback, comments and suggestions. Together we can build a small and lively industry to be proud of. Top Australian olive oils cost the same as the top olive oils of Europe. That is not to say that they are equal to the best in the world. The production costs are the same at the boutique end, so it is not like the Aussies are trying to rip you off.

Just remember that ours is a very young industry. There is so much to discover still, and many mistakes to be made yet.


Here’s a word to practise your Italian. Picture a selection of the freshest vegetables – fennel, capsicum, carrots, beans, celery hearts and whatever else you can think of – cut into sticks or bite-sized pieces, a bowl of the freshest, new season olive oil and a little Murray River salt. Dip the vegetables into the oil, dress with a bit of salt, and crunch. That is pinzimonio, one of the most astute ways of enjoying oil and stimulating the appetite.

During the 2004 Melbourne Wine and Food Festival I had the pleasure of eating some roasted piglet expertly cooked by Pietro Porcu of the popular restaurant Da Noi. This was served at the restaurant Scusami on the balcony overlooking the Yarra River, a perfect setting for an al fresco dinner. And sure enough, Pietro served the piglet cold, on a bed of myrtle leaves with large bowls of pinzimonio. The combination of crisp skin and raw vegetables was a refreshing change from the usual rich sauces that accompany roasted meats.

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