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Down Under in the Land of Olives

VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA — Kangaroos, koalas, award-winning wines, and the breathtaking Sydney Opera House. That’s usually what comes to mind when we think of Australia.

Extra virgin olive oil?

Not so much.

Yet an olive oil revolution is taking place Down Under. In much the same way that Australia turned the wine world upside-down with its outstanding, New World Shiraz wines, it is now doing the same with New World extra virgin olive oils.

Boundary Bend Ltd., Australia’s leading vertically integrated olive company, which controls every production process from growing its own olives to pressing the oil to bottling, has been a pioneer in this new industry Down Under. It is now the largest olive oil producer in Australia, and the top-selling brand there.

This spring, I had a chance to see first-hand how it all came to be, when Boundary Bend flew me and a couple of other journalists to north Victoria state in southern Australia to tour its facilities and expansive groves planted with an astounding 2.5 million olive trees.

It is those trees, bearing 14 different olive varieties, which form the foundation for Boundary Bend’s award-winning Cobram Estate extra virgin olive oils. The brand, launched in 2001, is now exported worldwide. The olive oils can be found on supermarket shelves in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and yes, the United States, where they are sold at Nob Hill, Raley’s, Bel-Air, Lucky, Andronico’s, Winn-Dixie, Fairway Markets and SaveMart (starting at the end of July) for about $6.99 per 375ml bottle.

Boundary Bend hopes to distinguish its Cobram Estate extra virgin olive oils in two ways. First, it touts its freshness. After its olives are harvested, they are pressed in less than six hours. The resulting oil makes it to market only two to 12 months later.

Second, it stresses the strict testing its oils go through. At a time when fraud is reportedly rife in the olive oil industry — as documented in a superb 2007 New Yorker piece detailing how a significant percentage of Italian so-called “extra virgin” olive oil is actually adulterated with cheaper oils such as canola –- Boundary Bend is working with Australian government officials to strengthen standards for extra virgin olive oil made both domestically and imported into its country.

After all, extra virgin olive oil is big business these days. From 1997 to 2007 alone, olive oil consumption grew by 100 percent in North America, according to the New Yorker article, much of it fueled by our new-found love affair with extra virgin. Made from the first pressing of the olives, extra virgin is considered the highest quality and best tasting olive oil –- and therefore the most expensive and most prestigious. Because it is the least processed, it also has the highest levels of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that can help keep hearts healthy.

Rob McGavin had never made olive oil before co-founding Boundary Bend. But he was intrigued by its healthful properties, particularly after losing both his parents to cancer.

McGavin, now executive chairman of the public company that grosses $40 million annually, grew up on a sheep and cattle farm in Queensland. After getting an advanced certificate in agribusiness administration, he talked his father into mortgaging the family house to buy a vineyard to grow grapes for winemakers. His small 35-acre vineyard eventually expanded to 600 acres. The grape-growing venture proved so successful that McGavin sold 80 percent of it in 2003 to the mega wine and beer conglomerate, Foster’s, for a handsome sum. With that tidy profit, he started his olive oil company.

In Europe and China, olive trees are grown on many small, individual parcels of land and the fruit is still picked by hand. But in Australia, Boundary Bend grows its trees on enormous swaths totaling more than 16,000 acres in north Victoria state, near the banks of the Murray River. As we flew overhead in a small plane, the scene below was like one spellbinding enchanted forest.

To pick all those Kalamata, Picual, Picholine and Hojiblanca olives during harvest time, Boundary Bend helped developed a state-of-the-art harvester called the Colossus. Each $800,000 machine can do the work of 8,000 human pickers. And Boundary Bend owns 22 of those harvesters.

The machine, manned by two people, slowly makes its way down a row of olive trees, massaging the branches with rows of thin poles to gently pluck off the olives, which are then ferried up a chute and into the bed of an adjacent truck.

When the truck is full, it deposits its load at the pressing facility on site. Olive oil is literally the juice of the olive flesh. Avocado is one of the few other fruits where oil comes from the flesh rather than the seed. While tannins in wine come from the skin of the grapes, the bitterness of olives lies in its water, which is extracted from the oil.

Because heat, light and oxygen can wrought havoc, the extracted oil is pumped into stainless steel tanks in a temperature-controlled storage room. Each tank gets topped with a layer of nitrogen to safeguard against oxidation. The olive oils also are sold in dark glass bottles to help preserve their flavor.

Last year, Boundary Bend produced 8 million liters of olive oil. In the next four years, as younger trees start to mature, that output will double.

Cobram Estate’s oils come in three different lines: “Commercial,” for restaurant and other food-service operations; “Premium,” boutique extra virgin olive oils made from the best oils from each year’s crop, including single-origin ones; and “Everyday,” blended oils sold in supermarkets that include “Light & Delicate,” “Fresh & Fruity,” and “Rich & Robust,” as well as infused oils such as “Lemon Twist,” “Garlic Crush” and “Chilli Blast.”

The real test, of course, is in the taste. Leandro Martin Ravetti, executive director of Boundary Bend and its master blender, led us through a tasting of just-pressed Cobram Estate extra virgin oils, as well as ordinary, off-the-shelf European supermarket oils.

The difference was striking. Each sample was poured into a small plastic cup, which we warmed in the palm of our hand as we held our other hand over the top of the cup to concentrate the aromas so we could better discern them.

We took a whiff, then a sip of each oil, swirling it in our mouth to coat our entire palate before swallowing. Freshness, balance, aroma, flavor and complexity are key characteristics of a great extra virgin olive oil. It should smell fresh and green. It should not taste fatty or greasy in the mouth, even if it is oil. It should have a clean finish.

The Cobram oils all did taste remarkably fresh and vibrant, even if they differed in aroma and flavor — from the mesmerizing strawberry jam fragrance of the Manzanillo to the intriguing tomato leaf and peppery bite of the Picual. In contrast, the sample of an ordinary Spanish olive oil that had been bought at a supermarket not only smelled of apple vinegar and sharp citrus, but left a noticeably unpleasant oily film in the mouth — all signs that the oil had passed its prime and become oxidized.

Before making this trip, I, like so many other Americans, had no idea that Australia even made olive oil. Now, after tasting the lovely Combram Estate extra virgin olive oils, I sure hope the word spreads about the wonders they’re creating Down Under.

Tomorrow: Baking with Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a Food Gal Contest to Win Olive Oil Samples

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