It’s hard to pinpoint when my romantic notions of olives started. Certainly not when the school nurse warmed up a spoonful of olive oil over a bunsen burner poured it over a cottonwood plug that was unceremoniously jammed into my ailing ear with reassurance that by break time my ear ache would be gone. More likely it was when a full moon lit up the ancient olive groves around Andalucia’s Pueblos Blancos where I spent my honeymoon. It’s hard not to feel romantic about olives that have been around for thousands of years and immortalised by the Greeks in the Goddess Athena. This most ancient of fruit trees has been prized for cooking, medicine, fuel and oil with its branch symbolic of one of mankind’s most precious commodities – peace.
Nowadays olives are one of world’s most cultivated temperate fruit with an explosion of production in the last ten years as olive oil has become the messiah of cooking and healthy eating. Dominating the oil aisles of supermarkets and upmarket food stores, olive oil is as much liquid gold today as it was when traded in ancient Mediterranean. When you look contemporary olive production, there is nothing romantic about their industrialisation, globalisation and commodification, especially the production of olive oil. I shall save the gory details for my next gastronomic course essay for there is more fun to be had in recalling a glimpse into the world of olive oil grown just over the hill in the Wairarapa where we spent a pleasant weekend at the inaugural Martinborough Olive Oil Festival.
I’m going to skim over the lunch experience of the festival since the extramural oil tasting, oil pressing and olive harvesting more than made up for what was a disappointing gastronomic experience. Let’s just say that the olive oils shone out from a meal that was otherwise lack lustre and just goes to prove that even the finest ingredients can’t make up for a culinary and hospitality shortcomings.
Like wines, to fully appreciate the range of olive oils you have to taste a few. Guided by Margaret Edwards, one of New Zealands most authoritative olive oil tasters, I learned about the fruity, bitter and pungent qualities of olive oil and how a good slurp of air in and out as you taste gives a deeply complex sensory experience. If you close your eyes it helps to conjure up those flavour associations – a touch of banana, vanilla or tomato stalks – as the chemical compounds generate the organoleptic properties of the olive oil. With a background in food science the names of all the phenols were rattled off by Margaret making the session feel a little like a chemistry lesson but an essential part of getting to grips with the unique and delicate flavours that make up an oil.
Admittedly after two hours of slurping oil my gastric juices were ready for a rest and a wander around the night market was the perfect antidote. Glowing in Martinborough’s Town Square food and craft stalls plied their wares by candlelight made all the more magical when nursing a cup of warming mulled wine. The cafes and bars of Martinborough provided refuge for festival goers from the icy cold brought in by a southerly.
We didn’t let a little cold stop our tour of olive oil pressing and harvesting to wrap up our whistle stop tour of Martinborough’s olive oil empire. Started only around 20 years ago, the region is producing award winning oils and even prompted a new New Zealand best selling book by Jared Gulian who tells his city slicker tales of olive farming as Moon Over Martinborough. As a long time reader of his blog it has been wonderful to see his ambition to be a published author come true.
I may be a romantic but there is something special about eating food when you know where it comes from and who produced it. Talking to Helen of Olivo oil about her experiments with infused oils and growing olives was encouraging and inspiring. Made all the more amusing as her beagle Sophie scavenging for left over soup infused with olive oil handed out to visitors to the Olivo tasting room.
To top it off Helen shared with us her recipe for chocolate mousse that was a small triumph at the lunch and I’m looking forward to making it as a special treat at home. In the meantime, I’m tasting olive oil in a completely new light. But more importantly I’m lucky enough to have made some delicious orange infused olive oil muffins and topped off his lordship’s signature risotto with just a splash of porcini infused olive oil.
Although much of Martinborough’s olive harvest was over it was fascinating to see the tree shaker harvester being demonstrated and learning how the olives are washed, dried, mashed, and spun to extract the extra virgin olive oil. Most surprising was to meet someone who grows olives on our side of the hill delivering their olives for pressing. Needless to say we jotted down his recommendations for varieties to grow as it turns out my dreams of being an olive farmer might be more real than my day dreaming might otherwise have me think.