Pukara Estate Olive Oil
Do you ever wonder what was filling the supermarket shelves before olive oil came along? It’s not been that long since the cooking oil of choice was limited to sunflower or vegetable. Now the ubiquitous extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), virgin olive oil, light olive oil, pure olive oil and the boutique varieties from smaller producers at specialty shops and markets has become the go-to oil for cooking and dressing in Australian kitchens.
When I was ensconced at the feast of the Hunter Valley the other week, Bruce from Pukara, an olive estate of some 200ha located in the Upper Hunter Valley near Muswellbrook, gave us a taste of olive oils made from trees that he planted in 1999. Not only are there the regular EVOO and ‘Novello’, which is oil from the first pressed olives of the season (peppery and fruity), but they have a range of delightfully flavoured oils such as lemon, wasabi and chilli. Don’t even get me started on the flavoured vinegars (to die for).
It was a happy coincidence to learn that Pukara Estate operates the only olive oil processing plant in the Hunter Valley. Not only able to produce their own olive oil on site, they also press the olives for practically ever other olive estate in the land.
As Bruce explained the process of extracting the liquid gold from the olives I was intrigued. I’d had this romantic notion about olives being pressed in some old-fashioned wooden vice. But it seems the Italians are far more advanced than my imagination and have developed rather spiffy-looking technology to ensure the oil’s heath benefits are preserved as much as possible using centrifuge technology.
This was demonstrated during a visit I made the following week to the Estate to clap my eyes on the first-rate set up, complete with Italian-grade equipment. Alongside a primary school class, I was able to witness first hand a batch of green and black olives go in one end and come out the other end a luscious stream of green-gold liquid ready for bottling.
In terms of the process, the olives are picked, crated, turned out into a sorter (to remove any twigs and leaves) and then washed.
The olives are then crushed to produce a rather unappetizing-looking paste before being mixed to concentrate the oil in to droplets.
The paste is then put through a centrifuge, which spins it at a very high rate to separate the water and solids from the oil. The oil is collected and stored in large vats, not unlike wine, protecting it from light and air until it is ready for bottling. All the while the process managed under the eagle eye of the only Irishman in the village, Stewart.
If ever you find yourselves in the Upper Hunter, I highly recommend a detour to Pukara Estate to check out their operations (and fine coffee!) as well as the fine country town of Denman and local Two Rivers Vineyard.
Some olive oil tips:
Most olive oil not labeled EVOO or virgin has been treated with a chemical-based process to extract more oil from the pulp, producing an oil with which has less colour, flavour, aroma and health benefits.
Cooking with EVOO to a very high temperature (around 190C) destroys much of what gives it its health benefits so you may have heard advice to keep EVOO for dressing salads or dishes and virgin olive oil or pure olive oil for cooking.