In what can rightly be called a tumultuous year, South African olive oil producers have once again proven their grit and ability to produce world-class olive oils under pressure and diverse conditions.
With a crop that looks to be 30% up from 2019, the SA Olive Awards entries also show a healthy number of 104 oils. A dedicated panel of tasters judged these oils during the week of 17 – 21 August and the results will be announced via a live streaming event to be held on Thursday 27 August.
The SA Olive Awards is an event dedicated to the producers of extra virgin olive oil and the high quality of their product. Before an oil can be entered into the competition, it has to qualify for the SA Olive CTC seal. This seal ensures that the oil is locally produced and tested by a panel of expert tasters that deem it as an extra virgin olive oil. The seal also assures consumers of the transparency of the message on the label.
Although the South African olive oil industry is small compared to its counterparts in the Northern hemisphere, it stands shoulder to shoulder with them and is often in the limelight at international competitions.
Be sure to tune in for the SA Olive Awards this Thursday via Facebook or Instagram. The charming and talented Jo-Ann Strauss and well-known television presenter and food writer, Ilse van der Merwe, will present the event.
Women in the SA Olive industry: Venishree Mayer – an unexpected life
Venishree Mayer is not just an olive producer; she is also passionate about her community and all-hands-on-deck when it comes to serving the industry. After having studied law and ending up in global marketing, Venishree spent more than 20 years abroad before returning to South Africa, looking for a place to settle down and move into the hospitality industry. That dream took on a life of its own when she stumbled upon an operating olive and wine farm in the Tulbagh Valley. With the guest farm concept firmly in hand, she now also had a few thousand olive trees and vineyards to make work of. And she did! Venishree became the first Indian woman and producer in South Africa to win a medal at the annual SA Olive Awards.
We took a drive out to her beautiful farm and spent a lovely morning roaming through the olive orchards and discovering just how much Venishree cares about the land and its people.
1. What was the biggest challenge when you started out on the farm?
The farm was in pretty bad shape when we arrived four years ago. There was basically little to no irrigation and the trees were not pruned. It was a bit of a mess and a pretty sad sight. It took a lot of patience, research and learning to get to where we are today. We just had to be brave and dive into the unknown.
2. Did you have any support?
There is no government support, but some of our fellow industry members really went the extra mile for us. Our first port of call was industry stalwart, Reni Hildenbrand, who advised us on many elements of olive and wine farming. Our neighbour, Tiaan Ras, an established olive farmer, was also incredibly helpful. The people of the Tulbagh Valley are truly supportive. During our first harvest we realised that we do not have enough crates. Our neighbour dropped everything he was doing and delivered 150 crates!
3. What is your farming philosophy?
We use only regenerative farming, which means no pesticides are used on our trees. Everything you get in your bottle is 100% pure. When we arrived on the farm four years ago, there were no butterflies and rain worms! Last year was the first year we saw worms in the soil and butterflies returning. It was a great achievement for us – just seeing nature coming back to its original state.
4. What are the challenges for women in the industry?
Farming is historically a male dominated industry, but when I look at the SA Olive board of directors, women are widely represented. This industry lends itself to gender neutrality – all you need to do is bring a good olive oil to the table. There are many female workers in the industry and a lot can still be done to support them. I am a stauch supporter of the Transformation project at SA Olive.
5. How are you involved in the local community?
I came from an underprivileged background. My parents channelled all their money towards an excellent education path for my siblings and I. Education is thus very high on my priority list when it comes to my community. From the beginning, I have encouraged my staff to send their children to school. I’ve also made sure that the children have access to books and are partaking in sport. Giving parents time off to support their children in their educational endeavours is part of our philosophy.
I also donate my time to the local children’s home in Tulbagh, assisting with charity work to hold auction events to generate funds. I’m on the board of another NGO, which is a Marimba band, called the Amarimba Wolseley band. They play at weddings and other events. It’s a safe haven for children to come in, learn and be part of a community.
6. What do you need to make olive farming work?
You must have lots of internal energy, conviction and passion. Also be prepared to be incredibly hands-on – today you might need to fix a pipe and tomorrow you’re busy with high-level strategic business decisions and budgets.
7. What is one of the highlights of your journey as an olive farmer so far?
Coming back to SA and being so close to nature has been a boon to my health and spirit. Watching all the cycles of the fruit’s life – from it growing, to harvesting and then seeing and tasting the final product – all of this inspires me on a daily basis.
8. Is there a trend in the food industry that excites you?
I love seeing the fusion of all of South Africa’s food cultures within the chef industry. The SA Olive Young Chef competition is a wonderful platform to educate young chefs on the benefit of using extra virgin olive oil and from there become ambassadors of the local industry.
9. What is the dream for your business within the South African context?
I would like to help educate consumers across all cultures about the value of choosing good extra virgin olive oil. In doing this, consumers also then fly the flag for SA and raise our nation’s pride. Ultimately, I want to see an increased market share of premium SA produced CTC certified extra virgin olive oil, (fully complying with the standards set by SA Olive).
SPINACH & MUSHROOM PHYLLO TART with MARINATED TOMATOES
Recipe by Zola Nene
For the tart:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 rosemary sprigs
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 Tbs olive oil
250g sliced mushrooms
2 Tbs Zola’s Feast Flavourbomb Spice Mix
400g chopped spinach
250g cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper
2 Large eggs
4 sheets phyllo pastry
For the tomatoes:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
Juice 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup Extra Virgin olive oil
2 Tbs chopped parsley
1 punnet cherry tomatoes, halved
Salt & pepper
- Preheat oven to 180c, place a baking tray into the oven
- Place olive oil, rosemary and garlic into a saucepan, then heat gently until garlic begins to sizzle
- Turn off the heat, then set aside to infuse
- Heat another 2 Tbs olive oil in a large pan, then add olive oil. Add mushrooms, then sauté on high heat until mushrooms begin to brown on the edges
- Add the spice mix, then sauté for a few seconds
- Add the spinach and toss well until wilted and any liquid from the leaves is evaporated
- In a bowl, mix together the cream cheese and cheddar, then season with salt and pepper to taste, before mixing in the eggs
- Mix in the spinach mixture and stir well to combine
- Brush each sheet of pastry with the garlic & rosemary infused olive oil, then stack them in a criss-cross pattern
- Grease a 20cm loose-bottom round cake tin with olive oil, then line with the stacked pastry
- Add the filling, pressing down to avoid air pockets
- Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden, and the filling is set with no jiggle
- Leave to cool to room temperature before slicing to serve.
- For the tomatoes, whisk together the mustard, honey, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Add the tomatoes, season to taste and toss well
Women in the SA Olive industry: Linda Costa – a blend of knowledge, passion and heart
They say dynamite comes in small packages, and in the case of Linda Costa, never a truer word was spoken. Linda also has a warm twinkle in the eye that immediately draws you in. She grew up on an olive farm and you would have to look far and wide to find someone with more knowledge about the industry. We caught up with Linda a little while ago to chat about her personal and professional journeys with the beautiful olive fruit.
1. What brought you to where you are today – a woman in agriculture?
Although I grew up on an olive farm, I never had an inkling that all things olive would become the axis of my life later on. My life meandered through universities, in and out of a very happy marriage, and I was blessed to have three wonderful sons. While doing doctoral research in Microbiology at Stellenbosch, my father invited me to join him in his burgeoning table olive fermentation plant. Somewhat surprised at this strange turn in the flow, I gave it a 2-week trial, and that was it! Like a jigsaw puzzle, things just fitted into place. I was in a happy place. That is when the olive oil journey started flowing too. This was the time of dramatic changes in the methodology of olive oil making – and getting a taste of this glorious extra virgin olive oil was a game-changing experience. So I started learning everything I could about tasting and appreciating the liquid gold, and my travels abroad made me appreciate what a great product we were crafting right here at home.
2. Are there unique challenges as a woman in the olive growing and olive oil making business?
The challenges experienced by women in the olive industry are surely similar in all agricultural sectors. I believe it is a transient phenomenon – predicated by the traditional and supportive roles women played in agriculture in the past. This is changing rapidly. As is the acceptance in the sector of female authority – a hard-earned position indeed. Challenges bring out the best in us!
3. What are the hard skills you need to make it work?
I do not personally make olive oil, but I do grow trees and process a couple of tonnes of table olives every year. I think the hardest skills to master are ingrained radical self-love and self-confidence.
4. What are the soft skills you need to make it work?
There is so much that we can contribute to the industry in the form of soft skills – especially when it comes to adding compassion and gratitude to the mix. To demonstrate that compassion does not imply weakness, but rather adds another dimension to the fullness of the experience of everyone involved.
5. What has been a highlight in your career in the olive industry thus far?
A highlight in 2019 was having the privilege of leading two EVOO Tasting Teams to Spain to participate in a World Team Tasting Challenge – what amazing teams! And they achieved remarkable results – and definitely put SA on the global tasting radar. The timing of the trip was so fortunate, even though we entertained the idea that we were being too optimistic many times. This was another reminder that despite headwind, procrastination does not always serve.
A highlight this year was being invited to Australia to present table olive workshops all around the country in February. I offered some workshops there about 16 years ago and was therefore very surprised that the message is so appreciated now. Times change, and people change, but the right principles remain steadfast! It was my father who taught me everything I know about table olive production, and I am so very grateful for the opportunity he afforded me to work with him.
6. Why do you love what you do?
I just love being part of an industry that has a global history and tradition – the products of which are inherently natural and an integral part of our daily health and well-being. Years ago when I was completing a Masters degree in the UK in Experimental Pharmacology, my dream was to design a drug that would ’save the world!’ Those were the heady days of the emergence of ‘designer drugs’ to eradicate any ailment. Today I cringe at the thought! And am so happy and blessed to have my own little natural Olive Farmacy! The table olive, EVOO, olive leaf extract, and the beautiful olive wood – they all make up the most complete Gift of the Universe. This is why I love what I do. And my appreciation is deepened every day since becoming a certified health coach and meandering through every facet of human health and how each one benefits from………. you guessed it ….. all things olive!
7. What does the future hold – for you, your business and the country?
My aim is to continue producing the best Kalamata table olives for consumers to appreciate and to propagate different cultivars that are not commonly grown here – to broaden the spectrum of flavours in our olive oils. Another passion of mine is blending olive oils – especially when one can experience that surprising synergy and alchemy when the blend results in something much more exciting than the sum of the parts.
These unexpected, upside-down days we are experiencing are extremely hard, to say the least. And indeed devastating for many of us. Despite this, it has provided pause for thought, and forced us to take stock and re-evaluate our headlong race to nowhere. My hope is that this time is teaching us to value the basics again – the values of integrity, honesty and caring. And to re-evaluate the way we eat and stay healthy, especially while having so little contact with outside family and friends. All the more reason to boost our immunity. Community is immunity, but at present we need to find new paths.
8. What does your support structure look like?
My support structure consists of my family, my team here on Awakening and each and every friend and acquaintance, even if it is metered out! I need to express gratitude far more often.