The good oil comes out of Shepherds Flat
SCOTTISH-born builder wandered around an olive grove at Shepherds Flat, trying first a green one then a black variety. With disappointment in his voice, he told grower Andrew Gallagher, “I don’t think much of them.”
Gently he was told that, much like Tony Abbott’s famous onion, they were not for eating raw. These olives are pressed for high-quality oil. Misunderstandings about olive oil still occurs and diners may be short-changed by tight-fisted restaurateurs who serve a second-rate oil. “In a salad, a poor-quality oil shows a lack of flavour, tasting bland or even soapy,” Andrew says. “You should experience a peppery taste. Its absence probably denotes that it is not the best quality oil.” Extra virgin, sometimes called EVOO, is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil classification. Simply put, it should have no defects and a flavour of freshly pressed olives, having not undergone the industrial processes used to make “refined” oils like sunflower, soybean and canola. It's not easy to produce extra virgin olive oil. A producer must use fresh olives in good condition and monitor every step of the process with great care. Extra virgin olive oil doesn't stay that way. Even in perfect storage conditions, the oil will degrade over time, so it should be enjoyed within its two-year shelf life. Such knowledge has been hard-won in the 24 years since Andrew and wife Claire moved to a hilltop on the northern slopes of the Great Dividing Range, with 32 hectares of land. There they built an impressive, sprawling Mediterranean-style mudbrick home, with handmade tiles making the outside walls something of a gallery. “When we arrived here it was all uncultivated paddocks and we wanted to grow something that was sustainable,” says Claire. “We had an increasing interest in good quality organic produce with an ethos of using no harsh chemicals on the land or in harvesting a crop.” To them, olives seemed relatively straightforward, although it does take five years before the trees bear fruit. There was something very appealing about growing a tree that has been cultivated in the Mediterranean since 8000 BC, where Homer called the oil liquid gold, and 16 trees in Lebanon are said to still produce oil after 6000 years. From the many varieties of olives, the Gallaghers combine four, the majority being the Frantoio variety, a high yielding “oil” olive which was listed among the world’s best for 2018. Lithia Springs Olive Grove was named after the nearby sweet tasting Lithia mineral spring. Once matured, the olive trees need minimal attention; the 1000 trees are harvested over a couple of weeks in June. The crop is hand harvested by a team of 20 or more harvesters made up of “friends and family”. The olives are removed from the branches with small plastic rakes and then collected onto large mats placed beneath the trees. The harvest can yield up to 1500 kilograms of fruit, which is then loaded into large hoppers and taken to be pressed within 24 hours of harvesting. After pressing, the olive oil is left to settle in a vat for up to six weeks and then filtered and bottled. The finished product presents a verdant, fragrant oil with a strong peppery flavour. To ensure the quality of the oil maintains its integrity, once opened it should be kept in a cool, dark place. In the 10 years they have been selling olive oil, the Gallaghers have maintained a practice of educating would-be consumers about the true flavour and health benefits of good quality olive oil.
Words: Kevin Childs | Main image: Kyle Barnes
“When we arrived here it was all uncultivated paddocks and we wanted to grow something that was sustainable. We had an increasing interest in good quality organic produce with an ethos of using no harsh chemicals on the land or in harvesting a crop.” - Claire Gallagher, co-owner Lithia Springs at Hepburn