Olives fresh off the tree (Photo: Will Carome)
Olives fresh off the tree (Photo: Will Carome)

KaiJune 6, 2021

Green gold: How a Christchurch cooperative is sharing the olive bounty

Olives fresh off the tree (Photo: Will Carome)
Olives fresh off the tree (Photo: Will Carome)

Every year, hundreds of thousands of olives go to waste in New Zealand’s parks, streets and back gardens. The Olive Oil Cooperative is doing something about that, writes Olivia Sisson.

As explained in Action Bronson’s ‘THE BEST OLIVE OIL AND BODYBOARDING VIDEO EVER’, olive oil actually belongs in the produce section. It is technically raw fruit juice.

Yep, the olive is a fruit and in the words of Bronson’s extra-virgin olive oil expert (oleogist) Nick Coleman, “Olive oil is fundamentally distinct from other oils; its health benefits and even the way we digest it are different.”

Olives are not native to Aotearoa but they grow extremely well here. Charles Darwin made the first official documentation of a New Zealand olive tree at Waimate North in the 1830s. Early plantings can also be found around the Waitangi Treaty House.

Olive trees – Cornwall Park circa 1920-1930, Una Garlick 1883-1951 (Photo: Auckland Museum /PH-1989-14-55)

Today, olives are grown commercially on farms from Northland to Otago. Our growing regions with long sunshine hours and minimal rain, according to Olives New Zealand, are almost perfectly suited to the crop. Olive trees can also be found in gardens, berms, and along residential streets throughout the country. Their fruit, however, often goes to waste.

Try some olives off the branch and you’ll find they’re bitter and disgusting. They need to be brined or pressed into oil. Brining requires time though and oil making requires an expensive machine – both of which can be hard to come by. Even if you do have the tools to make oil, you’ll need heaps of olives. Their yield is just 12-15%. Put simply, olives are difficult to work with on a small scale.

In Ōtautahi Christchurch, the Olive Olive Cooperative fills this gap. Every year, the group gathers together for one week to pick olives that’d otherwise go unused. The initiative is part of the Richmond Community Garden which sits along the Avon River in the city’s red zone – the area most severely damaged by the earthquakes.

Olive Oil Cooperative volunteers picking olives (Photo: Will Carome)

The red zone won’t be redeveloped so it’s now home to lots of green space and plenty of remnant olive trees. No one looks after these trees anymore, so the cooperative makes sure their fruits don’t go to waste. Hayley Guglietta, one of the garden’s trustees, started the cooperative in 2017. Last year, they picked 335 kg and produced 45 litres of oil with a press in Cromwell that’s happy to share the resource.

In addition to the red zone, the crew combs the CBD, and greater Canterbury, picking olives for whoever has trees and wants to get involved. “It’s sort of like a pyramid scheme,” Cathy Allden, the garden’s coordinator, joked. “People just kind of recruit one another to come pick. We even have elderly people who have olive trees on their properties but can’t pick them themselves. We match them up with someone who can.”

Anyone who contributes olives gets a bottle of oil in return and the rest are sold in the garden’s shop to fund its many projects. As far as volunteers go, the numbers are growing every year. Mostly through word of mouth. In addition to picking your trees for you, the cooperative will also prune them back for a fee. This keeps the trees manageable, results in larger olives, and supports the overall model.

Olive Oil Cooperative’s garden coordinator Cathy Allden (Photo: Will Carome)

Last Saturday a group of 10 took to picking some olive trees on a busy CBD street. Allden described the work beautifully: “Picking these olives just feels right. For me it’s really sensory too, when you pull them away from the branch they make this lovely popping sound.”

Sound is a constant with the Olive Oil Cooperative, it generates a lot of buzz. Several passersby stopped to ask the team what they were up to and, as they picked, the volunteers chatted away. It’s very social work, a chance to catch up. “It’s all about putting the world to right,” one volunteer said, “Actually talking and having the time to say ‘oh yeah how are your parents?’”

Olive Oil Cooperative founder Hayley Guglietta (Photo: Will Carome)

Last Sunday the annual week-long pick came to a close and the cooperative headed for the press. According to Guglietta, it’s important to time the harvest correctly and press the olives quickly afterwards. You want to get them after they’re ripe but before the frost has a chance to shrivel them. To check their readiness give them a squeeze: bright green juice signifies it’s time.

The actual oil, Guglietta explained, sits very close to the stone. It’s hard to access, and this is where the press comes in. It washes the olives, removes debris, grinds the olives, and presses the oil out without the use of heat or chemicals. The process takes just a few hours but the machine itself can cost many thousands of dollars.

The finished product is a Canterbury cold pressed, extra virgin (or first press) olive oil. Local chefs and foodies can’t get enough of it. “You don’t want to waste good olive oil like this in cooking,” Guglietta said. “Put it on bread or in a salad.”

The harvest (Photo: Will Carome)

As the cooperative’s website puts it, their olive oil has a grassy nose and slightly peppery taste. According to American EVOO expert Tom Mueller, that slight bitterness is one way to know you’ve got ‘good’ olive oil.

Olive oil, says Mueller, is good for you for two reasons: it contains mostly unsaturated fat and a host of beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols – with pungent and peppery oils usually containing the highest polyphenol levels. Unlike wine, it does not get better with age and its nutritional value degrades over time. Imported olive oil is often too old to offer the full range of health benefits.

Only those of us lucky enough to live in Canterbury are able to buy the Olive Oil Cooperative’s olive oil. They don’t ship. There are however several other boutique, New Zealand made olive oils on the market. If you want some tips on how to properly “taste” them give ‘THE BEST OLIVE OIL AND BODYBOARDING VIDEO EVER’ a quick watch.

Alternatively, go out and have a look for olives this weekend. If your area hasn’t yet frosted there may well be plenty of olives to get. While pressing them is a mission, you can always make table olives. It’s easy enough, Allden says. “Just chuck them in some water, add some salt, put them in a dark place, and change the water every week.” Here’s a recipe.

As for other olive cooperatives, it doesn’t look like anyone has replicated the Christchurch model just yet. Joked Allden, “Maybe we should patent it.”

Keep going!