In the second part of a series in which The Spinoff gets to know who, what, where and how our food gets to our plate, Alex Casey learns about how olive oil is made.
The bright lights and smooth floors of the supermarket are a world away from the soil and sun, the plants, animals and humans which have toiled to create the food that arrives on the shelves. Most of us shopping in those shiny supermarkets have lost touch with where our food comes from and the people responsible for making it. Few of us know the chicken farmers or cheese makers or avocado growers who work to fill the supermarket, or how they produce the food we eat.
This disconnection from our food has created an array of modern problems that affect our health, our environment and our society. Because we don’t understand the effort and energy involved in producing food it’s hard to appreciate its worth. As a result, far too much valuable food ends up in the landfill. This lack of understanding about the origins of our food has created a world where unethical and environmentally suspect farming practices have thrived. And it means brilliant local food producers have struggled to survive, as consumers choose the cheapest, easiest option.
So, in partnership with New World, The Spinoff is getting to know the food that lands on the shelves of our supermarkets a bit better. We’re speaking to the people responsible for producing some of New Zealand’s beautiful local food about how it’s produced, where it comes from, and what makes it unique.
In part two, we learn about the extra virgin olive oil made by The Village Press.
There’s a scene in the British sitcom Peep Show where Mark, a frugal bore, is doing the weekly shop. His dropkick flatmate Jeremy, wielding a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, tries to slip it into the trolley. “No mate, that’s 78p per 100 millilitres,” says Mark. “Well yeah, it’s first pressing,” says Jeremy. “Or do you want to wait until everyone else has had their fun with the olives?” He continues. “Fourth pressing, yeah, like that’s going to be a party in your mouth.”
Jeremy’s insistence on quality is one echoed by the folks at The Village Press, who have been providing olive-oil based mouth parties in New Zealand since 1994 and now process olives from around New Zealand at their site on Kirkwood Road in Hastings. CEO Dan Tosswill, who has previously owned a series of successful restaurants, has been at the helm since 2017. Unsurprisingly, he has an unbridled passion for extra virgin olive oil, and swears it is the only oil you need in your pantry.
How many olives are in an average bottle of extra virgin olive oil?
It depends on the variety and the time of year, but we came to the general consensus that it was probably about 330 olives in a kilo, so about 1200 olives in a 500ml bottle, give or take. That’s pretty subjective.
What is the difference between extra virgin olive oil and regular olive oil?
The main difference is simply process and quality. Extra virgin is unrefined oil, and the process of making it is very simple.
You take fresh olives from the tree and you press them at a cool temperature into a paste. This is called ‘cold pressing’ which is one of the defining factors of extra virgin quality. At The Village Press, our olives are pressed within 24 hours which is why our oils taste so fresh and clean.
The paste is turned gently until the oil starts to separate. The oil is moved into a tank where the solids naturally separate by falling to the bottom. The oil left on top is the extra virgin olive oil. The process is very clean.
For refined oils, you basically take all the discarded pulp from the extra virgin and you add heat and chemicals to extract more oil again from the pulped up fruit. If you want an oil without chemicals, or heat added, extra virgin is the only choice in our view.
What is the extra virgin olive oil industry like in New Zealand?
The extra virgin olive oil industry in New Zealand is still evolving, and The Village Press is very much at the forefront. The industry is only 25-30 years old, so we are still finding what works best here. There is a lot of potential so it is very exciting.
There’s still a huge amount to learn. The level of support we receive from the Foodstuffs teams is tremendous; it helps us scale our business and increase our footprint in New World and PAK’nSAVE stores. This enables us to grow the industry through investment in research and development.
How do olives grow differently here than the Mediterranean?
It takes about seven to eight years for an olive tree to start producing a good level of fruit, so we are still figuring out which olives work best in New Zealand. There are quite a few varieties we grow at the moment including Barnea, Frantoio and Leccino. Obviously, the big difference between here and the Mediterranean is that it rains a lot more here. It’s good because we get the benefit of the heat but the trees also grow well because of the amount of water.
What are some of the urban myths about extra virgin olive oil?
There are a lot of myths about how you can use the product – a lot of people think you can’t cook with it because it smokes. If you’re cooking on high heat, generally speaking, any oil is going to smoke so just reduce the temperature. Put it this way, we only have one oil in our pantry and it’s extra virgin olive oil.
Since starting here I’ve discovered there’s a lot of extra virgin fraud in the global market, so it’s good to look for true traceability around the origin of the oil you buy, as well as a pressing date.
It does deteriorate over time, so fresh is best, which is the great thing about buying an oil from The Village Press as you’re guaranteed to be purchasing oil from the last harvest. Ideally, you want an oil that had been pressed within the last 18 months. The key thing is, if it doesn’t have a press date, you have no idea when it was made.
What other chef hacks do you have that you can use olive oil for?
The way I approach it, I believe it is nature’s secret sauce. If I’m making potato or kumara mash, I don’t use butter, I use extra virgin olive oil. It’s a healthy fat. If you’ve ever watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on Netflix, the first episode is about extra virgin olive oil. When I cook scrambled eggs with my three little kids, we cook it in extra virgin olive oil, throw through some spinach or some rocket, add tomatoes and finish it with extra virgin olive oil.
If you’ve got a steak and a salad, or some fish, we always finish with extra virgin olive oil as it brings colour to the plate and great flavour. You can also use it in baking instead of butter. We put it on everything.
Why doesn’t extra virgin olive oil taste like an olive?
Extra virgin olive oil does actually taste like fresh olives. Table olives have been cured in brine so taste completely different to an olive picked directly from the tree. It is these fresh olives which gives the oil its delicious flavour.
If you get a teaspoon and taste extra virgin olive oil like wine, it is pure in olive flavour. It can be pungent and have some lovely bitterness. That’s why it’s so good with food; it provides balance.
How can you use the different flavours of your olive oil with food?
Our Truffle Infusion oil is fantastic on crushed, roasted spuds with a little drizzle to finish and some really good quality sea salt. Equally, you can also put it through mashed potatoes. The Spicy Sicilian is really good mixed with chocolate in baking as the combination of chocolate with the hint of orange and chilli is amazing. You can also use the Spicy Sicilian in Spanish paella. The Tuscan Infused with garlic and rosemary is perfect for a roast leg of lamb. The Med Citrus is perfect to go through a salad or a fish dish. Or, a favourite of ours is to pour Med Citrus over vanilla ice-cream. You can just play around with them.
What’s one thing you wish shoppers knew about your extra virgin olive oil on New World shelves?
I’d like people to know you can use it for cooking and you should. It’s incredibly versatile, and there’s a big difference between extra virgin and pure and lite oils. Explore and play with it. If you get bored, heat up a piece of fresh bread, drizzle it in extra virgin and sprinkle it with good quality sea salt. Then think of some new ways to use it while you eat that. If there’s one thing; don’t be scared of it, try it, but make sure you always get extra virgin.
This article was created in paid partnership with New World. Learn more about our partnerships here.