Olive oil has been part of the human diet for hundreds of years providing all kinds of benefits of which nutrition and health is probably one of the better recognized one’s. It is highly regarded by culinary professionals and prized for its nutritional value comprising of vitamins A, D, K, E as well as Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
We recently visited the charming Rio Largo Olive Estate situated in the picturesque Breede River Valley, to learn more about the fascinating journey that the olives grown on this estate (a blend of three olive cultivars consisting of Frantoio, Leccino and Coratina) make from tree to bottle which then become available to us in the form of extra virgin cold extracted olive oil for our cooking convenience and pleasure.
The estate is owned by Nick and Brenda Wilkinson and comprises 200 hectares along the southern banks of the Breede River in the undiscovered Scherpenheuwel valley, a destination surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges renowned for its fruit and wine producing vale.
Brenda and Nick ensure that only the highest quality of olive oil reaches their end user and the olives on this estate are carefully hand-picked from the tree so as not to bruise the actual olive and at the same time ensure that the tree is handled with the utmost care so it’s kept in its best shape in preparation for the next harvest season.
Brenda mentions how specially prepared mats are placed under and around the trees in order to prevent dirt from sticking to the olives as this makes a distinct difference to the taste of the oil and continues to explain how the olive pickers form an essential part of the business and earn according to the pallets they bring in during the harvest season which usually falls between April and July.
To avoid fermentation, the hand picking method also guarantees that the fruit are preserved in their best state after which they are processed to be freshly crushed on the same day that they are picked. It is recommended that olives are pressed within 24 hours of picking in order to produce their best quality of oil after which it is then cold-extracted in a modern Italian Oliomio machine and then immediately transported to be stored in stainless steel tanks, topped by a layer of nitrogen to prevent oxidation.
Each cultivar is pressed and stored separately with the storage room temperature being constantly maintained between 16C and 24C. The oil is lightly filtered to remove any moisture leaving any natural sediment to settle by gravity in the tanks. During our visit we could really distinguish the difference between the nutritious and health benefits that Rio Largo olive oil contains in comparison to the many widely recognized European labels, which by the time they reach our shores, have lost much of their freshness and nutritional benefits – something that most consumers are simply not aware of.
“To produce a quality olive oil that contains all the nutritional benefits is not a cheap exercise,” explains Brenda. We incur many costs along the way, attributed to high fuel consumption due to our location being situated miles from town and distribution centers as well as the daily utilization of machinery that pumps water to irrigate our olive trees and process the olives, using vast amounts of electricity,” says Brenda. Despite this, it seems like this investment is so rewarding for both Brenda and Nick, that they look beyond all that and feel enormous satisfaction to be able to provide South Africans with an olive oil of true distinction. “Behind each successful olive oil is a passionate producer and the entire process results in a completely natural product without additives or preservatives,” adds Brenda.
Having said this, it is vital for South African consumers to be able to distinguish between the various types of olive oils found in retail stores to be assured that they are only selecting and purchasing one of superior quality. If oil is to qualify as extra virgin, it must succeed in the chemical, tasting and freshness tests. Consumers can also be assured that South African olive oil remains the consumers’ safest choice confirmed by its quality, value for money and truthful labeling as tested by the SA Olive Industry Association.
Another way to identify whether an olive oil is of superior quality is to simply look out for bottles bearing the “Member of SA Olive Commitment to Compliance Scheme (CTC)” seal. The CTC seal of approval informs the consumer that the producer is committed to the standards of the SA Olive Codes of Practice, which are based on international quality standards. The seal assures the consumer that the content of the receptacle is 100% South African, has been chemically and organoleptically tested to comply with the international specification for extra virgin cold pressed olive oil.
Even though the imported olive oils are often cheaper in price by comparison to the locally produced olive oils, consumers are generally unaware that olive oil needs to be fresh in order to be of any benefit to their health. The long and arduous journey that many of the imported olive oils make, exposes them to harsh conditions such as sunlight and oxidation which in the process spoils their nutritional value, with some even becoming rancid. Once the olive oil reaches this stage, it is simply no longer of any benefit in cooking or for one’s diet. Furthermore labeling of imported products needs to be carefully read as many oils are simply packaged in one country but actually sourced from another in the “Mediterranean basin” where quality control is questionable.
The main goal of olive oil production should be to ensure that olive oil reaches consumers in the shortest space of time, from the moment it’s bottled until it’s consumed. Fresh olive oil provides anti-oxidants and polyphenols that our diet requires characterized by its fresh taste and smell. “Olive oil is a great source for lowering bad cholesterol and raising good cholesterol and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, helping to lower blood pressure. It is also associated with the decreased risk of coronary disease and certain types of cancers, proudly labeled as one of the world’s healthiest foods,” confirms Brenda.
It is interesting to note that only 10% of South African olive producers are responsible for 90% of the volume with the majority stationed in the Western Cape – an area that provides its typical Mediterranean climate ideal for olive oil production. Brenda and Nick’s warm hospitality and passion for producing an olive oil of the highest quality is so infectious and clearly evident from their sheer dedication and commitment to this trade, ensuring that only the freshest olive oil reaches consumers. This premium olive oil also comes at an affordable price of R80 for a 500ml bottle – a small price to pay for its outstanding quality.
Rio Largo Olive Estate welcome visitors for tastings. For appointments, please contact Rio Largo directly on 082 340 6726 for Brenda and 082 688 0578 for Nick. Alternatively, you can also visit their website for more information, www.riolargo.co.za