The harvest of olives begins throughout the Northern Valleys this month, with producers large and small collecting fruit for preserving and pressing into olive oil. These days olive oil from our region is amongst Australia’s best, and oils of different vintages and brands from varying terroir are rigorously tasted and compared like fine wines.
High in antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids, Extra Virgin Olive oil, or EVOO, is not only revered by connoisseurs, but is now a staple in most home kitchens in the region.
As former Moore River Olive Association (MROA) Executive Officer Jackie Shervington explains, this wasn’t always the case.
“When I joined the MROA in 2002, it was a really interesting time – there was a lot of money being spent in the industry in WA. Not only was there investment in trees and irrigation, there was a need to invest in olive oil education and regional branding,” she said.
“People might have had a big old tin of Spanish oil at the back of their cupboard, but we weren’t splashing it around the way we do today!”
Even though Benedictine Monks planted olive groves in New Norcia as early as 1850, it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that government tax incentives, coupled with the trend towards the healthy Mediterranean diet, led to the planting of almost 2 million trees in the region. By 2007 the Moore River Region accounted for over 70 per cent of olive trees and production in Western Australia, and Perth foodies started to embrace the benefits of the good oil.
“We had a wonderful group of advocates at MROA who really wanted to make the industry grow,” said Jackie. “There was also some great foundation work done by people like Maggie Edmonds who worked for MROA creating large olive oil festivals.
“To deeply change perceptions of chefs and create advocates and influencers we started the Food Lovers Club. We appointed Don Hancey as ambassador and he cooked up a storm, promoting Moore River olive oil at Food Lovers events and cooking demonstrations. It was a really fun time which lifted the profile of olive oil enormously!” says Jackie.
Not surprisingly, promoting the virtues of olive oil had a positive long-term effect on Jackie, and in 2005 she and her husband Tim planted 100 olive trees on their farm in Mooliabeenee.
“They are mostly Barnea – it was recommended as a pretty, fast growing tree, which responded well to irrigation,” says Jackie.
In 2010 they harvested their first olives from the establishing trees lining their driveway.
“It was a three-day endurance event as we laboured to pick 68 kilos between us. It was such hard work. I thought, this is so boring there’s no way we can do this every year! So, we found a way to make it fun.”
The following year they hosted a long table lunch and invited a bunch of friends.
“We rewarded them with good local food and wine, and they picked all day, glasses in hand, doubling our haul from the previous year and it was so much more enjoyable!”
Since then, the Shervington Olive harvest has evolved into a large and much-anticipated annual event, often with a theme to maintain the frivolity. Jackie says, “We’ve had French and Spanish themes, a Blanc de blanc and Country and Western.
“Friends and their families come up from Perth and make a weekend of it. Now we easily fill the ute – which is our target – usually taking well over 550 kilos to be pressed at the York olive processing plant.”
The yield of around 100 litres is shared with pickers and keeps the pantry stocked through to the next year.
Jackie reflects that not only did her time with MROA inspire a love of olives, it also provided valuable insights which helped with both the concept of a Northern Valleys regional brand, and the creation of the Northern Valleys News, which this month celebrates ten years of production.
“Something I struggled with MROA was defining the region by a geographical aspect — ‘Moore River’ was limiting.
“I was involved in a Chittering subcommittee looking at regional development and identified there was no brand that connected us all – rather a cross section of brands all with geographical limitations.
“A string of connected events — plus a great friendship — inspired the creation of this newspaper, which with the right branding tool, would unite us all.”
It will come as no surprise that the first producer to feature on the cover of the NVN ten years ago was an olive grower — Cyril Sauzier of Kara Australis in Gingin.
“It was always the purpose of the paper to uncover the secret treasures of the region and promote the wonderful produce grown here. We came up with the name Northern Valleys to include the areas in which we worked, lived and played — because living in the country you can’t do all that in one Shire.”
Jackie co-produced the Northern Valleys News for five years, promoting the region by sharing community stories and events. The decision to make the cover story always about a local producer has seen nearly 140 growers and tourist operators featured, and shared the amazing contributions of the region to Perth’s food bowl.
After their olive harvest was cancelled last year due to COVID restrictions, RSVPs for the Shervington’s 2021 Stoneridge Olive Harvest, to be held on 30 April, swelled to over 100 guests.
Jackie says, “Unfortunately, the weekend coincided with Perth’s lockdown, so we had to reschedule for later this month. But the show must go on – after all the olives are still waiting to be picked!”