They say good things come in small packages and this old proverb delivered in spades for the Cromwell region’s backyard olive growers at the recent New Zealand Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) Awards 2021 in Wellington.

Local growers and volunteer pickers who participated in the inaugural Central Otago Olive Growers (COOG) group community pressing day last Queen’s Birthday weekend scored a silver medal in the boutique medium blend category for their extra virgin olive oil – the finest quality of all olive oils.

Not only was it the first-time entry for 90 olive oil enthusiasts, but it was also one of only three Central Otago medal winners in the keenly contested categories from 165 entrants from throughout New Zealand.

North Island oils dominated the prize winners with Kapiti and Wairarapa oil producers scooping best in show awards.

Local producer Dunford Grove’s extra virgin olive oil was the only Central Otago winner in the 2020 national awards with silver in the commercial medium blend extra virgin olive oil category.

The popular farmer’s market staple, produced by Jocelyn Robinson and Sandy Black struck gold in the same category in these latest awards, the sixth consecutive year the oil has won an award, including a best in class.

Stephen and Olivia Morris, who process much of the region’s oil in their commercial press , including the community day olives at their Smith’s Way cherry, olives and vineyard property, took the silver award in the same category with their extra virgin Ollie’s Oil, sold locally.

The 40 backyard growers who brought predominantly Leccino Frantoio and Pendolino Tuscan olive varieties from their gardens and 50 olive oil enthusiasts who picked at a neighbouring grove in Smith’s Way brought the community tally close to 600kg.

For their efforts and a small entry fee they each received a 250ml bottle of the freshly pressed oil on the day. After racking (removing sediment and water after extraction), testing at an Australian laboratory and being certificated as extra virgin oil the bottled oil was sold to participants based on the number of kilos they picked. Around 10kg of olives produces one litre of oil on average in Central Otago though productivity can increase markedly if the olives are treated to a long, hot summer.

Producing an award-winning olive oil is not just luck. Olivia Morris says it must have the right amount of substances such as polyphenols (antioxidants) to satisfy the judge’s attuned taste buds.

“Olives are high in polyphenols so are good for us,” she says.

Olive growing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Central Otago with the majority of trees on both commercial and private properties no more than 25-years-old. The olives’ peppery taste is characteristic of the region.

Stephen and Olivia say they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout for the inaugural event and expect a bigger crowd this year given that growers will now know they can end up with their own award-winning blend.

The community day will be held on 14 May, late enough for olives to mature but a little earlier than last year to avoid autumn frosts that not only destroy the olive’s oil content but can also taint a batch.

“It’s a great way for backyard growers with just a few trees to get their fruit turned into oil, Stephen says.

“We need around 300kg of olives to make a pressing viable.”

The community day includes a tour of the pressing plant to watch how the leaves are discarded and the olives squeezed for their oil. Olive oil tastings and warm drinks and food add to the field day atmosphere.

Community participants at this year’s event will be invited to become COOG members with an annual subscription entitling them to participate in a field day, a harvest dinner, other gatherings and opportunities to share knowledge with other growers.

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