22 November 2005
Fine wines have been produced in South Africa’s Western Cape province for centuries, but few know that the region is slowly making inroads into the global market for another exclusive liquid – olive oil.
The Cape winelands are home to a growing number of boutique oil-makers, who say their product can compare with the best oils that Spain, Italy and Greece can offer – and they have the awards to prove it.
Morgenster olive oil, produced by Morgenster Estate in Somerset West, was named the Southern Hemisphere New Season Extra Virgin Olive Oil of 2004 in a competition between oils from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. It was also – some years back – the first South African olive oil to receive the prestigious Orciolo d’Oro award.
Willow Creek in the Nuy Valley won a coveted Grand Mention Diploma at the Leone d’Oro dei Mastri Oleari olive oil awards in Perugia, Italy in 2005, putting the oil on a par with the best in the world.
“South African producers are going really big – it’s going to be an exciting industry in a couple of years,” Paul Robinson, marketing and sales director for Willow Creek, told the Washington Post in an article published in July.
The Willow Creek Estate is home to the Rabie family, who have been farming there since 1793. Traditionally a wine farm, the estate began producing olives in 1999.
Willow Creek’s production is still small relative to European standards, according to the Washington Post. It exported about 4 000 litres last year, mainly to Britain, Finland and Germany.
According to John Scrimgeour, chair of the SA Olive Industry Association, South Africa’s total olive oil production was 490 tons in 2004, compared with total world output of about three million tons.
“But it’s a growing industry, make no mistake,” he told the Washington Post. “We’re exporting very little – we’re battling to meet local demand.”
But he says consumers must be taught the difference between high quality and mediocre oils. Most of South Africa’s output is extra virgin oil, with less than 0.8% fatty acids.
According to the International Olive Oil Council, extra virgin and virgin olive oil are completely natural and unrefined. All other oils can be assumed to be refined or to contain a proportion of refined olive oil. These are usually sold as pure olive oil, olive oil or light olive oil.
“You won’t get any benefits from third-rate olives,” says Carlo Costa, whose grandfather established South Africa’s first commercial olive operation in the Paarl district.
“There’s olive oil and there’s olive oil,” he told the Washington Post. “An olive mustn’t smell like dirty socks.”
South African producers complain that olive farmers in Europe are heavily subsidised, so an imported Spanish or Italian oil can cost half as much as a South African oil in local supermarkets, according to the newspaper.
But South African oil is worth the extra money because it is fresher than the imports.
Jan Pretorius, oil maker at the Olive Shed near Stellenbosch, holds olive oil tastings in which he first passes around an imported oil for visitors to smell, then follows it with his own products pressed from three different cultivars – Frantoio, Leccino and Mission.
“Europeans like the slightly sweeter taste of South African oil,” Pretorius told the Washington Post. The Olive Shed exports small quantities to Switzerland and Denmark, after tourists toured the mill and liked what they found.
The southern advantage
One advantage South African producers have is latitude. They press their oils in the European off-season, when oil is scarce and northern demand for “fresh-from-the-mill flavour” is high.
“We have competition from Chile and Australia, but that’s good,” Costa told the Washington Post. “Our oils do very well in international competition.”
Kloovenburg Estate in Riebeek Kasteel won a prestigious mention in 2004 in the Italian world olive oil guide published by Cucina and Vini, which named it as one of the best 15 oils in the world.
“We exported last year for the first time, to Europe and America,” says Annalene du Toit, the estate’s marketing director. “Not very much – about 1 500 litres – but there are lots of possibilities.”
There’s also local demand for olive trees, especially because South Africa is prone to drought and the plants have modest water requirements. Willow Creek’s Robinson says people are ordering 10 000 or 20 000 trees at a time, and planting is increasing rapidly.
“The key is marketing,” Robinson told the Washington Post. “There’s a little bit of surprise in Europe that South Africa produces olive oil. But people know South Africa makes good wines, so we have been able to ride on wine’s coat tails.”