Five locally produced olive oils were named the Absa top five olive oils at this year's South African Olive Oil Awards. The oils were judged by a panel of qualified olive oil tasters.
The olive oil industry is one of the fastest growing agricultural activities in the South Africa. (Image:fornobravo)
The top five places were taken by Porterville Olives, which claimed two positions, followed by De Rustica Olive, Gabrielskloof and Rio Largo Olive Estate. All the oils were in the intense style, which is characterised by a bitter and spicy taste. Other styles are medium, which is semi bitter, grassy and clean, as well as the delicate style, which is a milder oil used for delicate dishes.
The competition gave recognition to and rewarded producers that attained different technical levels of quality with bronze, silver and gold medals. A total of 43 oils received gold medals, 13 for intense quality olive oils, 24 for medium and six for delicate style; 39 received silver medals while 14 received bronze medals. "We can say unequivocally that the vast majority of locally produced extra virgin olive oils are of a superior standard," said Nick Wilkinson, the chairman of the SA Olive Industry Association (SAO). SAO is a non-profit association that represents the common interests of the South African olive industry.
The tastings and awards were made over a period of four days in August.
Marbrin Olive Growers, nestled in Robertson in the Breede River Valley in Western Cape, was one of the winners, bagging a total of three gold medals. Briony Coetsee, the marketing manager at the farm, was pleased with the win; however, she said that the olive oil industry was not without its trials. "The success is not financial yet as South Africans do not appreciate locally produced products."
Another big winner was Oakhurst Olives from Tulbagh, also in Western Cape. It was the recipient of two gold medals as well as two silver medals. Pieter du Toit, the managing director of Oakhurst, said that this showed the farm was producing good olive oil.
This year's South African Olive Oil Awards had a record number of more than a hundred entries, representing a 58% increase over 2012. It was the highest number of locally produced oils to compete in the competition since its inception eight years ago. "The judges follow an internationally recognised method of scoring the oils within categories of delicate, medium and intense. The oil is judged for its aroma, bitterness and pungency as well as the balance between these characteristics," explained Wilkinson.
The entries went through a series of blind tastings by the panel of judges using an internationally recognised method of scoring the oils. "Olive oil must have a great smell and must smell like something green such as grass or olive leaves. It must also be free of any defects," said Benedetta Lami, one on the judges.
Other categories included the Lifelong Achievement Award, given to the judging panel for their contribution to the local olive industry. Recipients included Gerrie Duvenage, Reni Hildenbrand, Louise Rabie, Robert Claasens, Leonard Arangies, Lami and Anna-Marie Ferreira. Lastly, the Mentorship Award was given to individuals who mentored the new generation of olive growers. All entries included a chemical analysis of the oil.
A booming industry
South Africa is one of the leading olive oil producers in the world based on quality, taking top positions at international olive oil competitions, says the Olive Oil Times.
Production in the country has doubled in the last four years and with current trees planted growth will continue annually, with the expectation of import replacement. Consumption of olive oil has grown by roughly 20% a year over the last eight years says SAO. Approximately six million litres is consumed, of which two million is produced locally. Olive farming is one of the fastest growing agricultural activities in the country, with over 70 registered producers.
South Africa produces 3 000 tons of olives each year, while 2,000 tons are imported. Wilkinson said: "A small percentage of South African production is exported but this is increasing annually due to the superior quality of South African production. The retailers are the biggest importers, either directly or through their respective agents."
Challenges in the industry
The olive oil industry is not without challenges. South African olive oil prices are higher than those of imported oils. Coetsee said this was due to the incorrect labelling of internationally manufactured oils as they were not always entirely extra virgin. South Africa follows International Olive Council guidelines in ensuring that the best oils are produced. A large percentage of imported oil that claims to be extra virgin olive oil is not always the real deal. SAO said that testing carried out on two occasions of randomly selected extra virgin olive oil labels showed that up to 60% of the imports were either inferior quality olive oil or adulterated oil, namely containing a blend of seed oils or deodorised oil or pomace oil.
SAO added that the European Union subsidised its producers, effectively keeping their nationals in employment. South Africa received the lower quality of European production, but it was often superior in packaging, which often pushed consumers to think that the content in the bottle matched the quality of the label.
Wilkinson said the South African producers had applied for a countervailing duty equal and opposite to the European Union subsidy so that the country could compete on price on a level playing field. "We need to educate the consumer into the benefits of using quality extra virgin olive oil as against the poorer quality and fraudulent oils which have questionable health benefits. In the end you get what you pay for."
Location, location, location
The first olive trees in South Africa were planted by Jan van Riebeeck, first founder and commander of Cape Town, at his farm Boschenheuvel in the Cape in 1661. Olive farms are still mainly situated in the Western Cape province, because of its climate, which is very similar to that of Mediterranean countries, with cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. There are, however, farms in Gauteng, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape.
The Cape Olive Route covers a large area of Western Cape, including the Breede Valley, Paarl region, Stellenbosch and Helderberg, Durbanville and the Overberg region. About 200 olive cultivars are found around the world, with 20 different cultivars grown in South Africa. The average olive tree takes about three to five years to grow to maturity.
According to upmarket food and goods retailer Woolworths, the average 750ml bottle sells for about R90. Woolworths offers a wide range of olive oils sourced from a different manufacturers, a number of them in the Western Cape namely: Willow Creek ,In the Nuy Valley, Morgenster, a wine and olive estate in Somerset West, as well as Costas Estate in Paarl, to name a few.
Olive oil is good for you
The health benefits of olive oil are wide as it is a good source of vitamins A, K and E, which is a powerful antioxidant, as well as of iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. SAO pointed out that olive oil contained high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, which maintained the healthiest cholesterol balance.
"Extra virgin olive oil is the top grade of olive oil and is produced by mechanical process below 28 degrees and must meet certain chemical criteria with no taste defects," said Wilkinson. He added that it should contain the highest level of vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols, which were the underlying attributes for the health benefits of using olive oil in your diet.
Olive oil, especially extra virgin, contains tyrosol phenolic compounds such as oleuropein, an antioxidant derived from olive trees, and oleocanthal, a natural organic compound found in extra virgin olive oil. Together with vitamin E, they assist with fighting off cancers, inflammation, coronary artery disease and diabetes, among other ailments, according to Natural News.