About 25 years ago, not long after buying our block on Hermitage Road, I was invited to help write a book on Carotid Artery disease (my special interest) on the island of Cyprus by Professor Andrew Nicolaides of London, a Greek Cypriote. It was a successful collaboration and importantly for me, an introduction to the world of the Olive.
The olive tree, the oldest cultivated tree in the world, originated in the Middle East and was spread throughout the Mediterranean over 3000 years ago by the Phoenicians. Olives, on their own, are bitter needing salt water to cure and make them edible, this is probably why it was along the shores of the Mediterranean that they did best. They also grow on poor rocky soils- if olives could grow on Cyprus I thought it could grow anywhere! That led to the planting of our olives at Tintilla where the clay on limestone soils was most favourable.
So if the olive spread by shipping around the Mediterranean how and when did it get to Australia? Looking up the 1788 account of fruit trees that came with the First Fleet there was an extensive list of what was collected at Rio and the Cape but no mention of Olives. The Plants included: Coffee, cocoa, cotton, banana, oranges and lemons, guava, tamarind, prickly pear figs, sugar cane, quince, pear and strawberry. Clearly, our first settlers were looking at a variety of possible crops that may work well in the new environment. It remains unclear as to exactly when the olive tree made its first appearance but generally agreed that Parramatta was the site where it was planted. The Sydney cove soils being thought unsuitable after the disastrous first attempts and Parramatta having richer soils.
Non the less one of the oldest olive trees in Australia is located in the Botanical gardens. This photo I took while exploring the gardens with one of the curators, looking at the sight of the Busby collection of vines. The base diameter suggests it is over 200 years old!
Going out to Parramatta one can find yet another old tree in the grounds of Elizabeth Farm, the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur. Again the base suggests this tree may be over 200 years old.
Looking at the records of the Botanical Gardens by 1832 the supply of fruit trees to the colony included 1,330 vines-the commonest- followed by 188 Olive trees, 188 lemons and a range of other plants.
By 1835 some “500 olive tree layers and a vast number not counted of grape vines, plants and cuttings” were distributed reflecting the interest in olives and vines. So what do we know of the results of this early interest?
One of the most influential pioneers of the wine industry was James Busby who toured Spain and France as we know collecting vine cuttings and recording his observations in his Journal-later to be published. What is not commonly known is his interest in olives and the notes he made in his journal.
Here he notes the trees bear little fruit in the first year but in the second and third year bear a considerable crop.
The olive plants were nothing but large limbs of old trees sunk four to five feet into the ground and covered! Hence the mention of distributing “layers” from the Botanical Gardens.
Busby also reports the mode of bearing is biennial that is the young wood must be 2 years old before bearing fruit. As we now know this has important implications when it comes to pruning, particularly with the mechanical harvesters.
He recommends partially harvesting each year so there is always fruit-bearing wood remaining. He alludes to the various approaches to pruning a situation that is still current today.
It is interesting to note the Hunter River Vineyard Association held it’s first Olive oil tasting in 1850, as reported in the Maitland Mercury.
The first oil was made by Edwin Hichey of Osterley from a Florentine variety. The trees were 9 years old, so planted about 1840, but taking some years to fruit. Other fruit-bearing trees were in the Hunter including some that bore small black round olives which appeared to contain little oil although in Portugal these olives were used for oil. Discussion followed about the time to bear fruit compared to the European countries.
So clearly there was keen interest in the olive in the early pioneering days but this did not transpose into the development of an olive industry probably because the makeup of the colony consisted largely of people whose background did not include the olive as part of their gastronomical heritage. It would take two world wars and a great change in the makeup of our Australian population through migration before the olive gained the respect and use it had enjoyed for over 3000 years in Europe.
Even 25 years ago when I sought advice from the NSW Aguciture Department on growing Olives it was not foreseen what changes in demand and lifestyle would impact on local production. Their best advice was to import olive oil as it was far more economical. In addition, they gave me lots of information on olive tree eradication programmes that had occurred in the 1900’s!
There was no advice with regard to what varietal to plant or soil suitability. So we set out to plant a number of varietals, all dual purpose with a view to producing table olives for sale in our winery.
The plantings included Manzanilla and Sevillano (Spanish), Frantoio (Tuscan) Kalamata (Greek) and UC13A6 (Egyptian) as well as South Australian Verdale. We planted some 350 trees initially with success. The most favourable being Manzanilla and Frontoio. These two have been good producers from the start whereas it took about 10 years for the Kalamata to become productive. Disappointingly the UC13A6, a large black olive, has only been suitable for roasting and are poor producers on our block.
In the last 25 years, we have seen a real discovery of the quality of Australian olive oils and table olives such that many now prefer the local products. The growing of olives in association the wine industry has also been beneficial. The mechanical harvesting and prompt delivery of the product are well understood in the regions. Extra virgin olive oils need prompt delivery and this has indeed led to the quality of our Australian oils. Sacks of olives waiting for up to a week as is often seen in Europe is a common problem we do not face.
The “natural” debittering and fermentation of table olives has proved to be a good way to treat olives for a boutique producer such as us at Tintilla. Commercial producers use caustic processes and artificial colouring among other techniques to treat their olives. The imported bland seedless tinned olives are examples which are used on Pizzas etc. There is no comparison with the flavours of naturally fermented olives.
We now know the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet where olives and wine play a key role in the prevention of Cardiac and vascular disease. Little did I realise my trip to Cyprus all those years ago would lead me from direct intervention into producing products aimed at indirectly preventing Carotid Artery disease and vascular disease in general!
Great changes have occurred in the last quarter century that would have pleased our pioneers who could foresee the possibilities and why it took so long is one of those mysteries of developments that occur in a new nation.
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Author: Prof. Robert Lusby (AM)
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