Red earth, cold winters and hot, dry summers – you could be walking through the Italian countryside but instead it’s the landscape at Charleville that’s being credited with providing the foundation for an international olive oil award that’s a first for Queensland.
Karen and Bill McLennan, who have been operating Sommariva Olives east of Charleville since 1996, have just won the southern hemisphere bronze medal at the annual Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards, from a field of more than 650 entries.
“We’ve got to fix the hole in the roof that Karen made when she found out about the medal,” is how Bill describes the excitement the news generated.
For boutique growers who have been trying to diversify their cattle operation amidst a market of bulk production and ongoing drought, it’s come as a wonderful reward for years of investment.
“We like to employ best practice – as a boutique grower we can’t compete on quantity so we’ve got to rely on our quality,” Karen said.
A centrifugal processing machine that separates oil from the pulp, food grade nitrogen that acts like a blanket in keeping oxygen away from the oil, and temperature-controlled storage are all elements, expensive at the time, that have played a part in the medal win.
Even the long-lasting drought may have had a role to play. Karen said that when they’ve had a good wet season, it’s been harder to extract the oil.
“The lower the water content, the more concentrated your polyphenol is going to be, so maybe the drought has helped,” she said.
Seeing the trees bear many similarities to the mulga trees over the fence, that’s no surprise.
Both of them have leaf shapes that are designed to catch water, and both have that blue-grey appearance, angled inwards to funnel rainwater down to the roots.
The variety that gave Karen and Bill their win is one that not a lot in Australia plant, because it has smaller fruit and less oil percentage.
“ The aroma of the Hardy’s is fantastic,” Karen explained. “It’s like apples and pears.”
Journey to bronze
The McLennan’s journey to bronze in Los Angeles began at a Farming Together event in Toowoomba last December, when they submitted samples of their Sommariva olive oil to a taste-training day.
The farm co-operative and collaboration program funded by a $13.8m investment from the federal government, designed to help groups value-add, secure premium pricing, scale up production, attract capital investment, earn new markets or secure lower input costs, featured training by international sensory expert and olive oil taster Dr Richard Gawel.
It was he who recommended the couple submit their oil for international competition.
The Farming Together Toowoomba project organiser, Amanda Bailey, CEO of the Queensland Olive Council, recalled everyone talking about that one oil that stood out on the day, and the encouragement that was given to take the next step to international competition.
Karen would one day like to expand her operation to cellar door tours, so she can explain the difference between good and bad oils, but drought and its resulting income uncertainty are making it hard to retire from the family’s panel beating business in Charleville.
Just as people roll fine wines around in their mouth, so do discerning olive oil buyers.
“A good oil has pungent, peppery flavours,” Karen said. “It’s all to do with the phenol count.
“You know a bad oil, from when you put it in your mouth and it tastes fatty instead of fresh.
“Some imports from Italy are adulterated – they’re mixed with canola oil to spread further.”
‘Queensland oils cut the mustard’
The international olive oil win by the McLennans, the first for a Queensland producer, gives fellow Queensland growers a lot of hope for the future of the industry, according to Queensland Olive Council CEO, Amanda Bailey.
After a history peppered with managed investment schemes and varietal trials that didn’t work in Queensland conditions, the state currently has around 100 active growers but none as far west as Karen and Bill.
Queensland’s isolation from the rest of the Australian olive industry coupled with climatic challenges has given growers in that state a mentality of being fighters, according to Amanda, and now this award has given them heart.
“It shows that Queensland oils can cut the mustard.
“Karen is like a guiding light. What she’s doing is phenomenal. It takes 12 solid months of work to produce a winning oil.”
Amanda said that Karen’s isolation from the rest of the industry in Queensland, let alone Australia, had benefits in reducing fungal threats.
She said her investment in a centrifugal processing machine had also paid off in bringing a higher polyphenol expression out in her oils, which was directly related to flavour.
While Karen said she didn’t think she’d had a full return on her investment yet, winning something like this meant they could start reaping the reward from their investment over many years.