Ancient History of Olives

The genetic origins of the cultivated olive (Olea Europaea) are unclear, but various subspecies of inedible wild olives are almost invariably present where olives are grown. Evidence suggests that the edible olive has been used since the early Bronze Age: from 500 years ago or more, probably beginning in the Asian areas of the Mediterranean coast. According to the written records, olive oil was much more expensive than either wine or oil from seeds. This is understandable when one takes into account that an olive tree grown from seed can take up to 15 years before they begin to bear fruit.

From its area of origin, olive cultivation began to spread westward all around the Mediterranean coast. Throughout the ancient world, olive oil was used primarily for lamps. Rituals such as anointing and skin treatments also used olive oil. There is little indication of its use in food in ancient times. Olive oil production continued to increase steadily into early modernity with greater urbanisation. However, the introduction of cheaper means of lighting meant a decline in demand in the late nineteenth century.

The high price of olive oil meant that producers often concentrated on cheaper production processes at the expense of quality, and oil was often adulterated or labelled as being of a better grade when in fact it was of poor quality. Even today, olive oil is sometimes found to have been fraudulently supplemented with or even replaced by various other products, particularly hazelnut or sunflower oil. This phenomenon was one reason for the establishment of the International Olive Oil Council, which has brought about great improvements in the industry in recent decades.

Current State of Olive Cultivation

The prospects of the industry have been bolstered by the increasingly widespread use of olive oil in food as its nutritional benefits become more widely known, as well as new growing techniques. While traditional areas of cultivation have wide spaces of more than 7 metres between trees, high-density and super-high-density systems have come into operation in which trees are closely spaced. An olive tree planted in such an arrangement bears fruit sooner, with yields equal to traditional planting methods. However, modern growing systems are not without their disadvantages, and super-high-density growing is only suitable for some cultivars and types of farming land.

The vast majority of current olive production occurs in Spain, Italy and Greece, only 10% of which is used for table olives. An immense variety of European cultivars exist today. However, this is partly a result of local tradition – sometimes restricted to one particular village – and the survival of a cultivar does not always reflect its intrinsic merit. In newly planted areas, a relatively small number of the better cultivars are usually planted. This explains why there are only about 20 major kinds of olive trees in areas where cultivation has more recently begun, such as in South Africa and New World cultivation areas.

History of Olive Cultivation in South Africa

Although Jan van Riebeeck already planted two olive trees at the Cape in 1661, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the olive industry began to develop in South Africa. At that time, only a few trees were planted.

Ferdinando Costa, an Italian immigrant, started experimenting with olive cultivation in South Africa in the early twentieth century. Relying on the indigenous wild olive (“olienhout”) for rootstock and the Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape, he began to import scions of fine Italian cultivars and determining varieties suitable for local conditions. In 1925, he transferred his efforts to Paarl, where commercial cultivation began in earnest. Scions were also obtained from California and Australia. In 1936, he produced the first olive oil.

Since then, the industry has grown rapidly. There are now more than 300 olive producers. The overwhelming majority are still in the Western Cape, particularly the Paarl region. South African olive oils have won many awards, the varieties cultivated here being renowned for their quality.

Current State of the South African Olive Industry

Compared to the European industry, the South African one remains small. In 2010, annual per capita olive oil consumption remained at only 80ml per year, compared with 12-24l in countries where it is more traditional. Less than a fifth of this is locally produced: European olives growers often compete with South African ones on price, benefiting from economies of scale and subsidies. However, South Africa is considered an emerging producer, and local consumers are increasingly turning to olive oil as a healthy alternative to other oils. Table olive production in particular is making headway, helped along by comparatively low labour costs and South Africa’s reputation as a high-quality fruit producer. Domestic production of table olives now vastly outweighs imports. It is one of the fastest growing industries in the agricultural sector.

Likewise, the success of the South African wine industry has provided a basis for marketing South African olive oil internationally. The fact that the South African olive oil industry has burgeoned relatively recently also has the advantage that many producers have adopted the most recent technologies from the start.

There are now many boutique style producers of olive oil, and production has more than doubled since 2004. A growing appreciation of the wholesome and flavourful use of olive oil in cooking among consumers has led much of the industry to switch to oil cultivars. Most imported, and all domestically produced, oil is extra virgin olive oil.

SA Olive, a voluntary association of local producers, has been established to ensure honesty in product labelling, confirm that olives have been locally produced and represent all members of the industry. The year of harvest is clearly displayed and all oil claimed to be extra virgin by the producer is verified to be such. Recent tests done by SA Olive according to international standards have confirmed that all the locally produced oil labelled as “extra virgin” which was tested was of excellent quality and fulfilled the necessary criteria, whereas 26% of imported oils had been incorrectly labelled “extra virgin” while being of inferior quality. Results such as these confirm that South Africa produces some of the best olive oil and should encourage consumers to try domestic products.

Olive Cultivars Grown in South Africa

Several types of olive are grown in South Africa. The Californian Mission cultivar is by far the most widely grown, and reliably bears large quantities of olives in a variety of conditions. The fruit is relatively resistant to bruising, so that it can be handled and transported with ease. These olives are ordinarily used as black table olives. With a texture that is moderately firm to plump, a pleasant appearance and good flavour, properly processed fruit can be a high-quality product. Mission olives have a high oil yield, but only very careful timing of the harvest produces olives that yield good, complex, fruity oil. Careful blending of oil from fruit harvested at different times can also yield good results. Manzanillo is widely planted and very highly rated as a green table olive across the world, but can also produce superb oil. The plant bears soon and fruit ripens earlier in the year than Mission olives. Early harvested Manzanillo olives yield grassy, bitter and herb-like oil, while oil from olives harvested later is aromatic and fruity. It normally has a low oil content, although later harvesting produces softer fruit with a fair oil content.

Kalamata is a Greek cultivar best suited to black table olive production; in fact, it is often considered the best table olive. This cultivar has been grown in South Africa for a long time. The olive tree is more difficult to grow than Mission trees and the fruit contains less oil. While the cultivar is found outside Greece, only olives from Southern Greece should be called “Kalamata” according to European Union legislation. In other parts of the world, there may be no controls about labelling and olives from different cultivars may simply have been pickled very much as Kalamata olives traditionally are. For these reasons, many products are called “Kalamata style” olives.

Frantoio and Leccino are two of the most renowned olives, used to make excellent oil. Oil from these two is often blended in a classic Tuscan style. Frantoio oil is strongly pungent and bright green, with very fruity, grassy and aromatic flavours, sometimes exhibiting hints of almond, depending on where it is grown. The mellow, lighter-tasting Leccino oil has a certain spicy flavour and may have grassy tones, with only mild fruitiness. It typically adds a gentler and more complex character to blends. Rosanna Farm grows Manzanillo, Mission, Kalamata, Leccino and Frantoio olives. Although many other varieties are now grown in South Africa, these varieties, together with Barouni, have proven to be the most reliable cultivars for the South African industry.

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