Branching out: Olive growing in Victoria

Man in olive grove

Penny Watson

Posted March 07, 2018

From Cobram to Red Hill, Victoria's olive groves are producing top-notch produce.

For years my mum has slathered surplus extra virgin olive oil on her arms and legs, maintaining it works better than any moisturising cream. She splashes it on the salad leaves, then adds a little bit to the palm of her hand and runs it up and down her arms and legs.

Like a Greek throwing a pinch of salt over the left shoulder, it’s akin to some kind of cooking ritual. “Those Mediterraneans have beautiful skin,” is how she explains it.

Extra virgin olive oil is the good stuff that’s pressed naturally from the olive and at its best when it has a golden emerald sheen and an almost grassy flavour. I’ve always preferred ingesting it to wearing it, but it turns out mum is spot on: extra virgin olive oil is packed full of essential vitamins and is high in antioxidants. Ergo it is good for the body, both inside and out.

This came to light on a recent visit to Rich Glen Olive Estate in Cobram, a boutique olive grove with an extensive farmgate store. The first product I picked up was not, as expected, a bottle of first pressings, but a tastefully packaged bottle of body oil.

The chief ingredient was extra virgin olive oil with the addition of almond oil, jojoba and natural beeswax, and I found myself slathering some on my arms mum-style. There is a whole room at Rich Glen dedicated to natural body products, from lip balms, body lotion, night serums and eye cream to baby sprays, insect repellents and deodorant. They’re all developed, packaged and sold on the property.

With hot dry summers, cool winter nights and the benefit of Murray River irrigation, Cobram has become a premium olive-growing region. For local growers, the busiest time of year – the annual harvest in April – is about to get under way. The ripening green and black fruit will be gently shaken from the trees, then pressed – pips and all – to be turned into liquid gold.

Olives and bread on a table

Rich Glen starts picking its green table olive (a different variety to the olives used for oil) in the first week of March and the olive oil harvest begins mid-to-late April. According to Ros Vodusek, who runs the business with her husband Daimien and family, the harvest “will run for two months day and night with 35 staff dropping their usual roles to get involved”.

One 500-millilitre bottle of Rich Glen’s Signature extra virgin olive oil, made from frantoio, manzanillo and kalamata varieties, contains oil from around 700 olives. “Our processing plant enables us to harvest and press the olives within three hours,” says Ros.

“So, we produce one of the freshest first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils in Australia.”

While Cobram Estate, the proudly Australian supermarket brand that has won awards around the globe, brings the region to mind, the brand’s main grove is actually 300 kilometres up the Murray River at Boundary Bend where there’s a 3000-hectare plot with 1.3 million trees. Rich Glen, with 36,000 trees, along with Stangrove Olives and Cockatoo Grove, are more boutique offerings, and their success is testament to the region’s Mediterranean-esque suitability to olive growing.

It hasn’t always been easy. Five years ago there was no money in growing olives commercially, Ros tells me. “At one point, the family were contemplating ripping out the grove to farm a more profitable crop.”

Then, as a value add-on to the business, the family moved out of the property’s heritage home and turned it into the farmgate store and cafe (Ros is a trained chef). It was a success. Now, cafe patrons sit at tables under the old veranda to dine on a menu featuring produce from venues on the region’s Farm Gate Trail including Katamatite Garlic and Boosey Creek Cheese.

There are also “soups and salads picked fresh from the garden”, which is a sprawling green Murray-irrigated oasis with a ‘vege maze’, children’s cubby and garden, an oversized chess game and local art installations.

Dining tables with view of windmill

The store is stocked with 150 products, from big tins of extra virgin olive oil, olive leaf teas and table olives to bags of pasta and homemade sauces, relishes, cordials, dukkah and granola. The 60 or so natural body products now make up 40 per cent of the business. The aforementioned body oil is the most popular product. “Not bad considering a friend and I first started experimenting with them in a Thermomix,” Ros says.

In the south of Victoria, 350 kilometres away, Mornington Peninsula is another olive-growing area preparing for a slightly later harvest in May. While the dry sunburnt country around Cobram relies on the miracles of Murray River irrigation for its crop, olive growers such as Hart’s Farm at Shoreham and Green Olive at Red Hill contend with different conditions – rich red volcanic soils and plenty of rain.

For Greg O’Donoghue of Green Olive, who runs the family business with his wife Sue, this means “too much vigour, so a lot of foliage”. “We hand-pick all our olives so it’s important everything is groomed and trim and they don’t get out of control,” says Greg.

Recently Greg pruned his 600-tree grove with a chainsaw, cutting them back so that four main branches protrude from the trunk to create a vased effect. “It lets the light into the trees allowing the fruit to ripen and makes the olives easier to hand pick,” he says. The pruning project means there’ll be no harvest this year, but an even more successful crop of 18-plus tonnes is expected next season.

Like Rich Glen, Green Olive has branched out and found new ways to share its produce. The big farmyard barn has evolved into a cellar-door style venue and the shelves are lined with homemade relishes and chutneys, teas, infused oils, kitchen utensils, bowls made from olive wood, and wines from the small vineyard growing along one side of the property.

Greg and Sue have been inspired to create their own line of olive oil soaps, creams, balms and body washes, with scents from the lemon verbena and rose geranium growing in pots around the garden. They have a cooking school on site and are also marketing their property as a farm experience. Visitors can walk among the olive trees, visit the pig pen and watch the runner ducks on the pond before settling back into a seat at a patio table with a tapas menu featuring produce from the surrounds. The olive tasting plate is a must: a mound of wild olives, deliciously salty kalamata and anchovy tapenade and a little white dish of golden extra virgin olive oil served with crusty white ciabatta. If mum was here, we know what she’d do.

Hands on

  • Gather a group of friends and hand-pick your own olives during harvest time at Hart’s Farm. Afterwards learn how to cure them in brine and enjoy a wood-fired pizza lunch and a glass of local wine or cider.
  • Enjoy a farmer’s lunch for two people at Green Olive including wine and a tapas plate featuring a chef’s selection of farm-grown olives, olive oil, tapenade and ciabatta.
  • The Murray Farm Gate Trail is a great way to explore the Cobram region’s food offerings including Boosey Creek Cheese, Fyffe Field Wines and Katamatite Garlic.
  • The Wine Food Farmgate trail in the Mornington Peninsula is centred on Red Hill and includes Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm and Main Ridge Dairy, both in the hinterland near Green Olive.