Records are dropping as this year’s bumper crop of olives make its way to island presses.
In contrast to 2015, when some of the island’s groves produced little or no fruit, this year’s crop flourished thanks to near-perfect pollination conditions in early spring and a wetter-than-usual summer.
Rangihoua Estate processing manager Darryl Beech is nearing the close of his tenth harvest with the label, and the huge volumes are still keeping him busy at the press.
Rangihoua Estate has already processed 53 tonnes this harvest, and still has a few weeks to go until they close the presses for another year.
They have been harvesting olives on the island since their inaugural harvest in the North Island in 1997, when they picked just 600 kilos.
“We now harvest and manage groves all around the island and some of these groves we have been working with for all 19 years,” says Rangihoua co-owner Anne Stanimiroff.
This is the first time they have ever found themselves still picking in June.
Picking at the optimal time is important for olives as well as grapes.
Margaret Edwards, international olive oil judge and co-owner of Matiatia Grove, agrees some varieties have been a little slower to ripen this year, probably due to all the rain Waiheke experienced last winter, in spring and early summer.
“Olives that are harvested when green have a low oil content. As they ripen to straw coloured or black skins and white (not green) flesh inside, the oil content increases.
“Green olives also often have high levels of polyphenols, the antioxidants that give the oil its bitter and peppery characteristics that, if too strong, make the oil taste a little unpleasant.
Matiatia Grove harvest around 600 trees from their own olive grove to produce both extra virgin olive oils and citrus olive oils, made by crushing the citrus fruit with the olives.
Average yields are around 15%, so it takes about seven kilos of ripe olives to make a litre of oil.
N u m b e r 29 are nearing the end of their biggest pick in the label’s 15 years, having already harvested over six tonnes this season.
“Due to a wetter season this year the yields are not as high as after a hot dry summer, but the oils are balanced and exciting,” says co-owner Prue Taylor.
“We have had some amazing results, like 145kgs from just two of our trees.
“We believe most growers are happy with their harvest and the maturity of the trees on Waiheke is again making wonderful, top quality extra virgin olive oils.”
And they certainly earn more than their fair share of accolades. Most recently, Azzuro Groves on Te Whau peninsula brought home a gold medal from the 2016 New York International Olive Oil competition for their 2015 Tuscan Blend.
But the harvest isn’t limited to the commercial olive groves. Whether you’ve got one tree or 20, Rangihoua Estate also press olives from home producers, bringing a Mediterranean feel to the season as, come Monday morning, small growers deliver olives picked with friends at the weekend to be pressed.
“In Italy it would be called the co-op,” says Anne.
“That’s where the idea stemmed from – a cooperative oil. But there you just get random oil, we give you a blend with your oil in it.
Rangihoua charge for pressing per kilo and if you have less than 150kg then it will be combined with other like fruit. Growers end up with the percentage of oil they contributed to that batch.
“I still enjoy harvesting olives,” says Anne. “Making olive oil is very humbling as we are literally extracting olive juice and it’s such an ancient product.”
• Bryony Cole