18 Sep

South Australia’s Pendleton Olive Oil Estate took out two champion medals

A deli line from a supermarket brand of Australian olive oil won a champion’s medal at last week’s Sydney Royal Fine Food competition. Cobram Estate, from the Murray region, was named a champion for its varietal extra virgin olive oil. There were tears of joy at its Victorian headquarters.

olive oil tasteThe results come after a rough ride for olive growers. The forces of nature – drought, flood and frost – left their mark on the 2007 harvest. For individual producers, such as Pendleton Estate’s Grant Wylie, quantities are down by about 60 per cent “but it’s definitely enhanced our quality”.

Individual harvests might be reduced but overall Australian olive oil production has grown, reflecting the sharp increase in the number of producers.

As with the Cobram Estate medallist, Pendleton oils are medium in style, veering away from strong peppery or robust notes towards a sweeter, more balanced flavour.

Extra virgin olive oil judging is in full swing across the country. It follows harvest, which begins in autumn, with new-season oils starting to appear in stores within weeks.

It’s peak season for show judge Peter Olson, who heads the Australian Olive Oil Sensory Panel in Wagga, an internationally accredited assessment body. He tasted more than 100 oils last week.

“Overall standards have been reasonable,” he says. “Growers and producers have had to pay more attention to detail to achieve quality this year. But yes, there have been some standouts.”

Judges rate oils on such criteria as aroma, fruit intensity and complexity. They’re also after a balance between the characteristic bitterness and pungency of some olive varieties, especially those picked early in autumn and the more golden, buttery tones of riper or late-harvest olives.

Despite ongoing research and endless industry talk, growing olives for oil, it seems, remains an imprecise science. “Three years ago our frantoio [a Tuscan olive variety] got golds all over the place,” Wylie says, “but the year before that it was manzanillo.” Both his winners this year were based on a Spanish variety, picual, although one was a blend with frantoio.

Cobram Estate’s champion was also pure picual. It’s sold in its gourmet range.

With varietals, climate and altitude all playing a part, getting the good oil is not easy.

Our palates are changing, too. Former Otto Ristorante chef Nino Zoccali is working on a new restaurant, cafe and retail complex called Pendolino, with a focus on olive oil. Early Australian oil producers aimed to emulate the big-hitting Tuscan styles but Zoccali – also an olive industry consultant and judge – has noticed a shift.

“I used to come at olive oil as a chef, shaking my head at some of the really bitter, pungent, grassy oils,” he says. “They work magnificently with Tuscan-style food – grills, roasted peppers. But now we are learning to look for certain attributes – harmony of flavours, balance, a fresher fruitier oil – which includes the milder, sweeter, late-harvest oils.”

Each oil, Zoccali says, should be taken on its merit: “Olive oils definitely do and don’t work well with certain foods. It’s like wine. Different grapes taste different depending on where and how they are grown and blended. And you look at that when matching them.”

Pendolino’s Olioteca (literally “oil shop”) is due to open in the Strand Arcade next year. It will feature up to 100 Australian and Italian extra virgins by region and variety and there will be tastings and masterclasses.
Sydney Royal Fine Foods champion olive oils

Pendleton Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil 2007 Available from About Life, Rozelle, 8755 1333, and Cross Street Deli, Double Bay, 9363 3374.

Cobram Estate Picual 2007 Available from The Essential Ingredient, Alexandria, 9557 2388.

Pendleton Estate Picual 2007 Sold to food service and restaurants only.
New standards for olive oils

With more local olive oils appearing on deli and supermarket shelves, the Australian Olive Association (AOA) has developed an accreditation scheme and code of practice to be launched before the end of the year in conjunction with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Participating producers’ oils will be able to carry the words Australian Extra Virgin and their oils may be subject to a testing system that will determine their chemical freshness. One test, the Rancimat index, is a measure of an oil’s resistance to oxidation and hence its shelf life.

Oil products must display a use-by date but the olive association is also lobbying for a mandatory production date to be displayed on packaging saying this is a better reflection of freshness.
How to buy good extra virgin olive oil

Taste if at all possible. Packaging should be dark glass and casks are also good. Match oil and food. A robust style is good on salads, grilled meats and roasted vegetables. Mild and medium oils suit frying, desserts and mayonnaise. Fresh is best. Look for the production date. As AOA president Paul Miller says, “Once you’ve got it, use it!”

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