Those shrill green olives you can now buy in supermarkets are nothing more than immature Sicilian olives in caustic soda. Alan Hodgson from Summerland Olives, who is imparting this information to me, certainly should know. ‘They’re grown in Trapani and bottled in acids plus copper-based food colourings,’ he says. ‘That colour was all about market pressure – the pressure from Europe to get olives out into the marketplace quickly. The naturally processed ones stay olive green.’That, presumably, accounts for the complete absence of flavour I have experienced the times I have been seduced into purchasing them.
Alan’s authority comes from the Churchill Fellowship he won in 2007, awarded in order that he study the production of Sicilian-style green olives and waste management – an award, moreover, that took him to Italy.
He and his wife Denyse became involved in olives following the purchase of a farm at Blue Knob seven years previously when, in their innocence, they thought they would like to make their own olive oil. ‘It started out as a little boutique weekend operation,’ says Denyse, who was then working full time as a nurse with the Department of Health. Because they were serious about it they travelled all over Australia, learning how to grow olives in Australian conditions – and then overseas when Alan won the Fellowship.
Summerland Olives is now a co-operative, whose members have olive groves in the Summerland region as well as central NSW and south-east Queensland. Steering the operation are Alan and Denyse, whose 25-acre property at Jiggi is home to about 400 table olive trees. ‘The only way we can survive is because there are 13 growers,’ Denyse tells me, ‘all actively involved. We’ve only got small groves but to make a business we all have to contribute.’
Alan processes every single olive, and it is all done completely naturally. He soaks the olives in a brine for anything between 12 months and two years, depending on the olives, in order to de-bitter them and get the flavours right. Nothing is wasted: the less-perfect fruit are dried out or whizzed up to become tapenade. ‘If we cheated and used caustic soda the return would be quicker, but we don’t use chemicals,’ he says. ‘It’s more expensive and it’s slower our way. That’s why none of us are rich!’ While Denyse is the ‘face’ of Summerland Olives and does all the markets, having retired from nursing a couple of years ago, Alan is in the factory five days a week, ordering, processing, bottling, drying, preparing the herb mixture.
And sorting them all by hand. ‘Meticulously!’ he says. ‘With all this meticulousness we’ve taken out 56 awards in the last five years.’ Denyse adds that it’s the awards that act as a benchmark. ‘You can say to the locals, this is the proof, this is quality,’ she says.
Apart from the fruit itself, its juice receives as many accolades. They produce two blends of olive oil, a mild salad ‘family’ one and a peppery robust one. Denyse and Alan did a lot of courses on blending olive oils. ‘We thought wine tasters were pretentious until we experienced these slurpers,’ laughs Denyse.
The Hodgsons would certainly agree with Pliny, who said ‘except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.’