Stellenbosch – South Africa is famous for its wines but not necessarily for olive oil, where Greece, Italy and Spain are the undisputed kings.
But the country’s farmers are undeterred, eyeing a potential share of the lucrative market for top-quality extra virgin oils.
At Tokara, a farm about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, workers pull rakes through branches to make the ripening olives tumble to the ground.
Harvesting the green treasure is under full swing in this popular wine region at the southern tip of Africa, where the landscape is reminiscent of Tuscany.
“Can you smell” the aroma, asks Gert van Dyk, 49, the farm’s operations manager, holding a glass of freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil that clinched an award in the US earlier this year.
“You can taste the nice bitterness at the back of the throat. Then the pepperiness comes through and the back of the throat is burning nicely,” he says, rolling the light green liquid over his tongue like a wine master.
The estate originally specialised in wine but now has oil as one of its flagship products – and even offers tastings of it.
“We have really extraordinary quality olive oil,” enthuses French restaurateur Christophe Dehosse, 55.
When he moved to the country 30 years ago, few people used olive oil, he recalls.
“But now a lot of farms have been planting olives … There’s really no reason to buy an olive oil coming from Europe 10 000km away,” said Dehosse, who owns four restaurants in the region.
“We really get artisanal, fantastic products.”
At his table, he offers an Italian-style appetiser of simple bread dipped in olive oil, which has become “very fashionable”.
He always goes for locally produced oil. “I know what I buy hasn’t been cut with anything. It’s 100% extra virgin olive oil”.
The first South African olives were grown in the early 20th century by an Italian immigrant, Fernando Costa, says SA Olive, an association of grower and producers.
Then in 1998, Giulio Bertrand, a retired Italian in South Africa, imported 17 varieties of olive trees and planted them on his farm in Stellenbosch.
Today, the Morgenster farm grows olive trees on 42 hectares, and millions of trees across the country descended from Bertrand’s first olive trees.
“My grandfather was known as the father of olive oil in South Africa as he paved the way to the olive oil industry as we know it today,” says Bertrand’s 29-year-old granddaughter, Vittoria Castagnetta, who works for the family’s still-active business.
Since then, the idyllic hills of the Cape region, with their Mediterranean climate and rolling vineyards, have produced olives recognised beyond the country’s borders for their quality.
A South African oil was in May awarded the “Absolute Best Olive Oil” in the world title at the prestigious EVOOLEUM awards in Spain.
The winning farm, De Rustica, 400km from Stellenbosch, enjoys the same Mediterranean climate.
While olive oil remains a luxury product for many South Africans, producers like Van Dyk have in recent years noticed “an increase in demand from the local market” as part of the quest for healthier diets.
Producing up to two million litres of olive oil annually, against global output of over three million tons, means it may take time for South Africa to compete with big global brands.
Yet making inroads into the luxury oil industry, is “one of the things South Africa can really be proud of. Same thing as our wine, it just needs to be discovered”, said Dehosse.
But South Africa may well start to position itself for the export market as some of the world’s traditional producers in Europe are facing headwinds in the face of droughts and recurrent heatwaves.
Low output caused by climatic disasters have drastically hiked global olive oil prices in recent months.
In January 2022, oil sold at 3,500 euros ($3,700) a ton, a year later it was up at 5,300 euros, and this month it had shot to 5,800 euros, according to international oil broking firm Baillon Intercor.
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