Nestled in the Scherpenheuwel valley on the southern banks of the Breede River in the Western Cape, you’ll find the producers of deliciously healthy olive oil, Rio Largo Olive Estate. We caught up with owners Nick and Brenda Wilkinson about their recent win at the 2011 Olive Oil Awards, what distinguishes a superior olive oil and more… Well done on winning double gold for your Extra Virgin Olive Oil Cold Extracted and your Rio Largo Mild. What do you think sets these olive oils apart? Our estate is located in the Karoo within a rain shadow and receives minimal annual rainfall (120mm) with very high sunshine hours. This makes for a controlled growing environment with irrigated water on demand on deep well-drained soils alongside the Breede River. The soils, climate, modern Italian olive cultivars and attention to detail using ultra-modern processing equipment, makes for quality. Quite simply, our terroir and passionate workforce striving for excellence make all the difference. (Nick) The blend of olive cultivars are quite different making one oil slightly more intense than the other – although both are 100% Extra Virgin Cold Pressed, which means that the oils may be enjoyed with different food pairings. Each annual harvest yields fresh olive oil and the quality differs from year to year. Olive oils are processed in South Africa between March and July. The oils are then sent to the SA Olive Association in Paarl to be tested and awards distributed at the end of August each year. Awards relate to the year of harvest as well as the intensity of the oil, but are ultimately a good indication that the oil you are buying is one of premium quality. (Brenda) What do you recommend pairing each one with when planning an outdoor, summery lunch? This is entirely dependent on your palate as some folk enjoy a more intense flavour on almost any food. The Intense Oil is a fabulous addition to soup as well as salads or roasted vegetables but the South African palate still tends to prefer the milder blends, which we offer in our Double Gold award winning brand. (Brenda) Which qualities do you think comprise the perfect olive oil? You must be able to taste the fruitiness of the olive! Remember that olives are naturally a bitter fruit but once processed, you should definitely still be able to taste and smell the freshness of the fruit. Some folk smell green grass, green peppers or even a hint of tomato but that earthiness should be present. If the oil has any hint of a more chemical aroma it tends to rancidity and should be avoided at all costs! The perfect oil is a blend of that freshness and taste and slides down the back of your throat smoothly. It should add to the taste of your meal, not detract from it. Old oils literally leave a bad taste in your mouth and somehow taste more oily than fresh oil. Look for the SA Olive Association seal of compliance as well as the date on that sticker. (Nick) The dietary benefits are more prevalent in fresh olive oil. We have recently packaged 2 litres of award winning oil into a foil lining within a Frans Groenewald designed i-Tube which keeps the olive oil fresh till the last drop, as the foil compresses with use allowing no air or light to spoil the oil. It really is the ideal companion in any kitchen as the usual 500ml doesn’t last long with any serious chef! (Brenda) Tell us about your farm along the banks of the Breede River. How does nature inspire you? We were very lucky to find this idyllic spot which is in Karoo Country with hot days and cool evenings. The Breede River is a valuable source of irrigation for our olive trees when we need it, as we get very little rainfall this side of the mountain – a real plus for any olive estate! Nature forms an intricate part of our day as we wake up to magnificent sun rises and end off our day with beautiful sun sets. So we’re lucky enough to watch the colours dance over our lands throughout the day! We are able to observe the seasons change and embrace all that goes with those changes. (Brenda) When is the best time of year to grow and handpick your olives? Olive trees start to flower in spring thriving in this harsh Karoo climate with water on demand to maximise growth as the summer heat evolves. Fruit set is determined in November and growth is nurtured through to the end of March, with harvest beginning in April and finishing in June. The long hot summer days are tempered with fresh south-easterly winds most evenings, slowing down the fruit fill and providing for that extra goodness and flavour in the make up of our terroir. Our dry climate provides for a rain-free hand picking harvest ensuring the oil content of our olives is maximised and not compromised with unwanted moisture. (Nick) What is your favourite start-to-summer meal? A true South African would have to say that the smell of that first braai after the long cold winter has to be an all-time favourite. I’d have to say meat basted with olive oil served with fresh salads and lashings of olive 0il! (Nick) Salads enjoyed with a crisp white wine amongst friends. (Brenda) And your favourite wine at the moment? What does one answer to this question? Wine is just a favourite per se! There is a particularly fabulous wine produced by a small estate in Paarl called Druk-my-Niet. The winemaker there, Abraham De Klerk, has produced a wine with a fabulous story behind it called Mapoggo! It’s a fabulous blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier that has become a family favourite. (Brenda) What tastes take you back to your childhood? Peanut butter sandwiches and toasted marshmallows. (Brenda) Fresh orange juice, biltong and boerewors. (Nick) What do you do to unwind? I love to walk around our farm at the end of our day as well as spend time with good friends. (Brenda) Flying and cycling anywhere in South Africa. (Nick) Finally, where can we find your tasty products? It is easier to find in Gauteng but it really is best to call us on the estate and we can tell you where your nearest supplier might be found. It is available through our major distributors La Marina in Gauteng and Wild Peacock in the Cape but also found in selected delis as well as restaurants around the country. It is also available online from thebeautifulstore.com. For more information about Rio Largo Olive Estate or to find out where your nearest supplier is, visit riolargo.co.za. Interviewed by Kim Grové.