The olive harvest commenced in April in the warmer climate of New Zealand’s far north and in the many well established olive groves in the Matakana area. Further south, the olive harvest came later, so fresh Matakana oil is definitely among the first of the season. More than 20 years ago, a group of olive growers in the district got together to form a local cooperative to pool resources to harvest, press and blend the oil they harvested annually. That co-op is now managed by locals Dave and Isabella Sullivan and the group friendship remains firm and committed to excellent production.
Dave manages the trees on all the properties, advises on their care and supervises the process and blending of the varietals that have been planted to produce delicious olive oils, which are sold at the Saturday morning Matakana Farmers’ Market. His wife Isabella was born in Milan and has a superb Italian palate. She is responsible for the marketing and operates the co-op’s market stall each week. She selects a small dark variety of olive for her fragrant sweet olives which can be purchased on the stall – I cannot resist them and constantly have a jar in my refrigerator.
Freshly pressed local extra virgin olive oil has become a preferred purchase for discerning cooks, with colourful hues that range from deep grassy green to lightly golden. The taste can be smooth and aromatic, or gripping with a peppery taste and rich flavours, depending on the olive varietal and seasonal conditions.
Savour extra virgin olive oil on a loaf of fresh bread in place of butter, and use it for roasting, frying, baking and salad dressings. It can even be drizzled around to finish a savoury dish.
So what should we look for in olive oil, if we can’t get to our local market? With a wide choice of olive oils, (extra virgin, virgin and pure, in descending strength), consumers are offered big brands imported from Spain and Italy, often with a price point lower than the intense locally cultivated and bottled olive oil. Avoid imported oils bottled in clear glass, as to preserve oil in peak condition the container should be dark to exclude damaging light. Look carefully at country of origin, and do not be tempted by olive oil labelled ‘pomace’. Importantly, fresh is best!
A growing trend in New Zealand olive oils are fragrant oils that have been cold-pressed with citrus, vanilla, chillies and more for added flavour. Local producer Brick Bay produces a lovely lemony flavoured oil on their estate. Further afield, Lot Eight in Martinborough, has a fragrant citrus olive oil which is made in a five-day process, cold pressed with lemons, mandarins, limes and oranges. This process, known as agrumato, is growing in popularity and is distinct from infused olive oils, where the flavours are added after the pressing. Lot Eight works with chefs to create bespoke oils, and diners at top restaurants may be lucky enough to be offered yuzu, wasabi, curry or an indigenous horopito and kawakawa olive oil.
This recipe uses extra virgin olive oil and marinated olives. It serves two, but could easily be doubled to feed a family of four.
Pasta with olive oil, olives, sausage, tomato and spinach
1 generous cupful of washed baby spinach or young silverbeet leaves
2 medium ripe tomatoes
100g dried pasta (linguini or pappardelle)
4-6 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
4 tasty sausages
12 fresh sage leaves
1 cup tomato passata or salsa (pure tomato sauce)
50g feta cheese, crumbled or cut into small cubes
½ cup black olives
Wash the spinach or silverbeet well and dry. Chop the tomatoes into small pieces. Put these ingredients aside while you start cooking the pasta.
Bring a pot of generously salted water to the boil and add the pasta. Leave on a fast simmer according to the packet instructions (10 to 12 minutes) until the pasta is tender, but not mushy. Drain well, return the pasta to the pan and immediately toss through the tomato passata with a generous “glug” (about 2 to 3 tablespoons) of the oil. Keep this warm over gentle heat.
Meanwhile, heat another glug of the olive oil in a small frying pan. Cook the sausages over gentle heat until golden. Remove and slice. Add the sage leaves to the pan and cook for a minute or two until crisp.
Add the spinach or silverbeet and toss until wilted. Return the sausage pieces to the pan. Take the pan off the heat and toss in the freshly chopped tomatoes and olives into the mix.
To serve, add the sausage, spinach, tomato and olive mixture straight from the frying pan to the warm pasta and toss it well through. Adjust the seasoning with extra salt as needed. Scatter the feta over the top and add plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Serve at once.