On a rainy day at the end of March, I made my way to Tulbagh to attend my first event as the newest member of the SA Olive team. The Tulbagh Valley is beautiful any day of the year, but with water-heavy clouds gently clinging to the mountain slopes, it’s magical.
Armed with a love for anything olive and looking forward to meeting some of the people that make this industry tick in South Africa, I arrived at Oakhurst Olive Estate. I was about to learn my Ps from my Qs in olive oil tasting from Spanish olive oil expert, Igancio Segura. Ignacio is an ‘olive oil taste master’ with a background in the mechanical and scientific part of making the best of the best olive oils. He is passionate, knowledgeable and has a quirky sense of humour.
We kicked off with some history and applications of olive oil. Olive oil production can be traced back 6 000 years to Mesopotamia and has had multiple uses throughout the ages: eating, preservation, lighting, medicine, cosmetics, industrial lubricant, as weapons and for religious rites.
Pertinent to the current climatic conditions in the Western Province and other global olive oil production regions, Ignacio discussed the effect of drought on olive oil. The climatic conditions of an area play a major role in the production of all naturally cultivated crops, and in the case of olive oil drought reduces the fatty acid content. Other factors that influence the fatty acid content are cultivars, ripeness and the latitude that the trees are grown at.
We then got down to the business of planting and harvesting. As in most agricultural sectors, the distance of the tree plantings is always a highly debated topic. In the case of modern day olive tree plantings it is down to dense and super dense plantings. Then there is the harvesting. Two methods of harvesting are umbrella harvesting and machine harvesting. Ignacio compared an olive to a plum in terms of how it should be handled and prefers the umbrella method for its less robust handling of the olives.
The historical journey of olive oil extraction is an interesting one. From the stone pressed method used for thousands of years to the industrial methods that we use now. How do we get it just right? That is a science in itself and takes a combination of technical knowledge and an experienced palate. At this point in the workshop we were presented with a variety of unmarked olive oils.
The process of judging an olive oil hinges on three stages: visual, smell and finally the tasting stage. When tasting you look for intensity, fruitiness and balance. Armed with this knowledge, it became very clear what makes a superior Extra Virgin Olive Oil. There are always personal preferences and for some palates the very peppery oils are just too intense, but what is better than a whiff of olive oil that reminds one of freshly cut grass! The fruitiness will come through in the nose, the pungency in the throat and the top of the tongue and the bitterness on the side of the tongue – ‘the rest is poetry’ according to Ignacio.
Driving home with the lingering afterthought of olive oil still in my nose and throat, I felt sentimental about being part of such an old industry. How many people have toiled through the ages to make this primary source of goodness and utility? Olive oil speaks of the splendidness of nature and the human being’s ability to integrate it into their daily existence.