By Jill Herron
Tarras: Baking hot summers, dry, stony soil and in the winter, bone chilling frosts…and that’s just the way they like it. Italian olives have found a happy home in the Ardgour Valley near Tarras and are producing delicious oil the country’s upmarket restaurants can’t get enough of.
There’s bonuses as well as challenges in the climatic extremes here, as Squeaky Hinge olive oil owners, Simon Gibbard and Nicola Mulvena, have learnt. The couple admit it was a “very steep learning curve” from arriving with no knowledge to now being one of area’s most significant growers in both production and reputation.
“We really just got into olives because they came with the house,” Nicola says. “We learnt by reading books, joining the Central Otago Olive Growers Association, and from our neighbours.“
The trees are 15 years old, Simon and Nicola having arrived to take on their care six years ago when they moved to Tarras following the Christchurch earthquakes. Nicola, a massage therapist, kept a diary of daily activities and in their first season the couple excitedly produced 150 litres of oil, imagining it to be a great haul.
On becoming more acquainted with the incredibly hardy trees, the couple began to fine tune operations.
“We’re on a slope here and we noticed an amazing difference in temperature from the top to the bottom of the hill. The frost rolls down and we pick at the end of May so it’s a real timing juggle”, Simon said.
The first season they started picking at the top of the block and worked their way down. By the time they got to the bottom, the fruit there was frosted.
“Now we pick from the bottom and work up, aiming to start when a third are ripe, a third are turning ripe and a third are still green.”
It’s a big job, especially now as production has grown three-fold and there’s three and a half tonnes of fruit to gather by hand. The thick trunked trees are fruiting heavily, aided by many factors, not least, a new irrigation system.
Work Force No Problem Thanks to Nicola's Cooking
As harvest time approaches Nicola puts the word out for WOOFers and backpackers to help pick in return for board and food.
It’s no problem finding takers and many stay on longer than planned. The food part of the deal is a big factor, the couple say, and also the chance to stay in comfortable accommodation as the weather cools, pre-ski season.
“We usually get three couples and I start stocking up the pantry a month before. I start freezing meals two weeks out then just keep on cooking to keep them fed. They love it,” she said.
Large sections of netting are laid out under the trees and pickers use special plastic rakes - not unlike something you would see in a child’s sandpit - to gently remove the olives. The fruit is then taken straight to Cromwell for pressing.
Every year an olive press is set up in Freeway Orchard’s commercial kitchen. Growers from all around book a slot and turn up with anything from a cardboard box of olives and an empty wine bottle, to fruit by the tonne and large drums to fill.
The press operates continuously day and night to get the job done, Simon said.
“Once the fruit’s at room temperature the leaves are blown out and it goes into a water trough then through an auger into a press to become a paste. The nuts and skins are separated off by centrifugal force at about 40,000 rpm. The oil flows out a stainless steel pipe.”
Ours goes into 50 litre drums and settles for a few weeks. We used to keep them in the house because they need to be warm. That was okay for three drums but now there’s ten.”
Simon works week on week off at the huge Macraes gold mine in East Otago. He’s one of a staff of around 700, his job being in the deep underground part of the operation. Not surprising then that an underground option for storing the precious oils occurred to Simon as the perfect solution.
The cool, dark cellar is dug deep into a bank behind the house and now that the memory of the painful consent process has faded the couple are delighted with how well it works.
Even on a blistering hot afternoon the interior is invitingly cool and in winter severe cold is kept at bay.
Chefs at Minaret Station, Federal Diner, Fedali and many others who have been waiting for the new season’s oil receive their much-anticipated deliveries and there's never any left over.
The Big Prune Begins Again
Nicola and Simon then toil through the winter prune. It’s the biggest job on the place due to the tree’s vigorous growth.
“They’re like willows, they grow fast and want to hang down. They say they should be open enough in the middle that a bird can fly through, otherwise the fruit there won’t ripen,” he said.
The cold and dry keeps pests away so there’s very little spraying aside from a few weeds. Fertiliser is added but it’s mostly Central Otago sunshine and water that goes into producing the peppery, green liquid gold that the couple sell under their Squeaky Hinge label.
According to the literature you can gain a myriad of health and beauty benefits from this good oil. Consume a teaspoon a day to help fight arthritis, aging, cancer, high cholesterol, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Rub it on for burns, dry skin and psoriasis or in the ear to combat earache.
Or forget all that and just do what those savvy chefs do, drizzle it on a salad and enjoy.