Wandering Willow Creek Olive Oil Estate
The sun is just peeking over the Nuy Valley as we arrive at the Willow Creek Olive estate in Worcester. It’s an unseasonably clear winter’s morning and the air has a crispness to it that one only finds when out of the city. It is a welcome change, and I enjoy a deep breathe of it upon exiting the car. We are met at the entrance by farm owners Andries and Louise Rabie, and Marketing Manager, AC Goodger. After enjoying a welcome cappuccino at the estate’s Bistro, we head off up into the groves to learn more about the art of oil production.
Willow Creek Olive Oil estate is located on the Rabie family farm, which has been in the family for over 225 years. It is set against the magnificent backdrop of the Rabie Mountain and is fed by the Keerom dam. While the farm has been in the family for many years, it has not always been in the business of olive oil; in fact this change only came about in 1999. Due to difficult economic fluctuations, and often unstable markets, the Rabie’s saw fit to diversify and added olive farming to the existing production of wine and table grapes. With fifteen harvests behind them they have determined which cultivars work best with the terroir, climate and conditions of the area. Currently Willow Creek farms approximately ten cultivars which ripen at different stages, have different flavour profiles, and cross pollenate each other. Blending various cultivars adds to the complexity of extra virgin olive oils. Trips to other olive growing areas around the world, and gleaning knowledge from countries that have produced olive oil for centuries, have helped to hone the crafting of this premium product.
South Africa produces olive oil worthy of global critical acclaim. The quality of product produced locally is extremely high and has won awards across international competitions for many years. The South African Olive Industry Association monitors production in SA and they work together with local producers to maintain this standard. One of the reasons the quality is so high, is because the industry is still relatively small. No refining of lampante or poor quality olive oils occurs. In layman’s terms this means that no processing such as de-odorising or bleaching takes place. These processes are often used to remove unwanted flavours (and in the process strips the oil of many of its anti-oxidants and phyto nutrients). Similarly, in the case of pomace processing, the last oil is extracted from the pomace using chemical solvents – which obviously impacts the health benefits of this natural product. SA oils however, remain in the top 20 percentile globally – raw and retaining all the innate goodness.
Sadly, however, the local industry is being prohibited from reaching its full potential by the continued influx of lower-grade foreign imports. There is no countervailing tax levied on these imports, and so the local industry struggles to remain competitive price-wise. South African consumers who are doggedly price conscious, may be swayed to purchasing a lower grade, and lesser quality oil labelled extra virgin, but it may not be the real deal, as labelling is also not regulated. The answer would be for South African consumers to commit to buying locally produced oils in favour of cheaper imports. Besides buying better quality oil, which retains all the health properties, by buying local you also support this determined industry, helping it to grow, supporting local communities and allowing for job creation. It’s a definite win-win all round.
Our tour of the olive oil making process took us firstly into the groves where it all begins, and then down to the factory, where we were privy to the production process – sorting, de-stemming, crushing and separation of the oil from the pulp. The liquid then goes through a further process, where the oil is separated from the water, and finally starts to resemble what will become the golden liquid we are so familiar with.
Back down at the tasting centre is where the real fun begins – learning the tricks of olive oil tasting and the age-old method of Strippaggio.
Strippaggio is Italian for sucking the oil over the tongue and at the same time sucking air, this allows for the flavour to spread. Louise demonstrates the organoleptic method, (taste test) for us, and we follow her step by step. She starts by pouring a number of the Willow Creek oils into small glasses, we are then instructed to wrap our fingers and one hand around the glass to warm it up, using the other hand on top of the glass to seal it. We swirl the oil around a few times, remove the hand and then inhale the scent of the oil. Real extra virgin olive oil should have a fruity nose, and the Willow Creek oils certainly do. We then take a sip (practising our Strippaggio) sucking in air, spreading the flavour and then swallowing. It is similar to wine tasting in that you learn to differentiate the flavour profiles across the range of oils and to pick up the subtleties in each one.
We then move on to tasting the range of flavoured oils, which include: Blood Orange, Basil, Lemon, Persian Lime, Truffle, Parmesan, Garlic, Jalapeño and Coriander. For this we do a bread tasting – mopping up the delicious flavours that are delicate, and yet surprisingly impactful. I am already thinking of a number of recipes I can conjure up using these oils. A simple summer salad could be elevated to a whole new level with the citrusy zing of lemon and blood orange oils, and I can see crispy potato wedges in my future, grilled to perfection and then drizzled with truffle flavoured olive oil.
Being an absolute table olive aficionado, I am excited to move on to tasting the range of bottled olives which the estate produces – we sample tapenades, and a variety of flavoured and infused olives, each with its own unique taste. Each tasting is peppered with anecdotes from Louise about how each one has come about and what makes it unique. At some point I know I am going to be peeled away from my position at the tasting table, so while I am there I soak up each bit of olive information she imparts, while continuing to savour the individual flavours.
Eventually it comes time for us to leave, laden of course with armloads of olive oils and tapenades to be enjoyed later with a good glass of wine and some artisanal cheeses. We bid the Willow Creek team farewell and leave not only armed with the exploits of our gift shop run, but also a genuine knowledge and appreciation for the South African olive oil industry, and this precious oil, whose merits and health benefits go beyond just the culinary. This is perhaps best demonstrated by a small, medicinal bottle Louise showed us as we are leaving. It is clearly many, many years old and was found in one of the sheds on the farm when it was cleared to make way for the change to olive production. The vintage medicine bottle is complete with an aging cork stopper and elaborate cursive script across the front label proclaiming it to be olive oil. Who knows, perhaps it was used to ease a skin irritation or to help heal a wound – whatever it’s use back then, its value was recognised. It is almost as if the forefathers knew the destiny of the Rabie farm and gave their early seal of approval. It is an assurance that the move to olive farming was the right one for this estate, and we certainly concur.