June 19, 2012
Australian olive oil producers are keen to push the freshness of their product, but only a minority puts a harvest date on its bottles. Photo: iStockphoto
Mary O'Brien asks if all olive oils should have a harvest date.
UNTIL a couple of years ago, I thought olive oil came from bottles and cans - and that it lasted for years. Luckily, a few visits to olive farms set me right, because olive oil is a natural fruit juice and, like all juices, is at its best when fresh.
In May and June, olive trees around Australia are laden with fruit. That's harvest time, when farmers are busy picking olives to make olive oil. If everything goes to plan, fresh olive oil full of flavour will be on our shelves in the next few months.
Australian olive oil producers are keen to push the freshness of their product, but only a minority puts a harvest date on its bottles. We pay a premium for extra-virgin olive oil, which is the highest-grade and healthiest olive oil, but it's only extra- virgin while it's fresh. Many olive oils carry a ''best before date'' of two years after harvest, but is this really enough for an annual product?
All Australian producers should stand by their products and use harvest dates, says renowned cook Maggie Beer, who puts dates on her own oils. ''Australian olive oil is fresher, it's on our doorstep, and if you can be shown the year of harvest you will know exactly where you stand,'' she says.
Beer says if local producers use harvest dates then people will realise that imported commercial oils without dates are much older.
Small producers are more willing to be upfront about their harvest date because they tend to sell out of each season's stock.
At Mount Zero Olives, Richard Seymour started putting a harvest date on his oil about five years ago. Olive oil is not like wine, he says: ''If you've ever tasted it straight off the press, there's nothing like it - it's absolutely fabulous. And from that day onwards it's a slow decline.
''We all know what last season's apples taste like - you can't compare them to the new season when they come out, and olive oil is exactly the same.''
As a small producer, his oil can move from tree to table in three to four weeks. This year's harvest should be in the shops by the end of this month.
Cobram Estate, Australia's biggest producer, takes a little longer to process its oil, with new-season stock due to reach supermarkets by August-September. Cobram took the plucky step of putting a harvest date of 2011 on its oil for the first time last year. The risk for a big producer is that it may not sell last season's oil before the new one is out and, also, there can be a difference in taste from harvest to harvest.
''There shouldn't be any reason why someone is consuming an oil that is more than a year old,'' Cobram technical director Leandro Ravetti says. ''Realistically, it's hard to have an extra-virgin olive oil that will last as extra-virgin for more than two years. That's as far as you can go from a taste point of view and from a chemical aspects point of view.''
Of course, one of the main reasons many Australian producers are reluctant to use a harvest date is because most imported oils in supermarkets don't have one - some don't even have a ''best before'' date. ''It's not unusual to find an overseas oil that is between two and four years old,'' Ravetti says.
Beer agrees. ''With commercial quantities of olive oil, Australian oil is absolutely so much fresher.''
But there's a big difference between mass-produced olive oils in supermarkets and boutique European olive oils. The best imported oils all have harvest dates, says Jenny Birrell, author of A Guide to Australian and New Zealand Olive Oils and co-owner of Olio & Pane in Hawthorn. She would like to see harvest dates being mandatory on all extra-virgin olive oil: ''Olive oil is an annual product and should be labelled as such.''
Our olive season is in the middle of the year, which can be confusing for consumers. Lisa Rowntree, chief executive of the Australian Olive Association, says: ''Putting a harvest date from a seller's point of view can be more of a deterrent than anything else. That's why … a 'best before' date is much more sensible.''
''Best before'' dates are enshrined in the new olive oil standard, which came into force last July. The standard gives a definition for extra-virgin oil and requires a technical basis for a ''best before'' date of two years. The main problem with the standard is that it's voluntary.
Independent consumer group Choice recently called for more rigorous monitoring of extra-virgin oils. Its 2010 tests showed that half the ''extra-virgin'' olive oils in supermarkets (most from Italy and Spain) failed the International Olive Council's trade standard and didn't qualify as extra-virgin.
Producers who play by the rules want the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to enforce the standard and take action against oils that don't conform. Ravetti says: ''It's the only way consumers can be protected in this environment where they are exposed to some great oils on the shelf and some bad ones next to them, and it's very difficult to distinguish between them.''
Harvest dates would be a great way for the local industry to market itself against commercial imported oils, Beer says. If all Australian olive- oil producers were driven by quality, it would boost the local industry and Australian fresh oils could replace older imported ones in supermarkets. ''Every chef in Australia should be using bulk Australian olive oil and every trade school and every apprentice should be taught the differences,'' she says.
Many big hotels use ''really cheap stuff'', Beer says. ''They will be using imported tinned oil, but as an industry, we should be targeting chefs to use bulk fresh Australian extra-virgin oil.''