Meet the Producer : Alto Olives
Alto Olives is the award-winning extra virgin olive oil producer from the NSW Great Dividing Ranges. Ever since their first successful oil production in 2006 Robert and his daughter Westerly have received multiple awards for their oils and olives, not only here in Australia, but also in USA and Japan.
Although it might have been a coincidence that Robert started to grow olives, he certainly has his determination and curiosity to thank for his success.
We caught up with Westerly to hear the story of Alto Olives, how it all began, and to find out what makes a really good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Back in 1997, Robert had recently returned to Australia after spending almost 20 years in Asia working in the leather industry. He was given 300 olive trees by a friend and decided to plant these on a close family friend’s farm in the Great Dividing Range in NSW. This property (Hopeful Farm) that Robert today owns and calls home has been a big part of his life ever since he was a teenager. And he has spent many summers, weekends and holidays running around the beautiful hills of this 3000-acre farm, which until this day still is generously covered in native bushland.
The 300 trees that Robert originally planted all died within that first year. However, the devastating loss only spurred him on to try again. So he purchased a further 1000 trees and hoped for a better result this time around. The land, which had been home to grazing cattle for the previous decades, was dry and cracked and Robert had to put much work in improving the soil and PH values. The second attempt also failed, and the 1000 trees died, but rather than counting his losses and trying another trade, Robert’s curiosity and affection for olives had already consumed his full attention. Before persisting with a new crop, Robert travelled to visit the most prestigious olive oil regions around the world to find out more about the climate, soil and care that the trees needed to flourish. He spent time in Greece, Italy and South America and returned to ‘Hopeful Farm’ full of knowledge and inspiration and knew how he would proceed to create the best extra virgin olive oil.
To his relief he had learnt that the climate and geographic location in the Great Dividing Ranges was, in fact, perfect, with its hot summer days, cool nights and cold winters, which provides the olives with the opportunity to rest from the heat in the summer and slowly mature and develop a fruity and herbaceous flavour.
Following his trip, Robert made alterations to his soil to get a better PH balance for the trees to flourish, and finally, in 1998 he had his first surviving olive tree planting. What then started as a 500-tree growth has today expanded to 20,000 trees with 15 different varieties of olives.
Robert enjoyed his newfound passion and revelled in creating something that was so healthy and delicious, and that actually benefited his consumers. He would process his oil and sell it to other producers, as he did not yet have a brand name for his product. But as he started to familiarise himself with the production, he would enter his oils into both local and national competitions and to his delight found that his oil was greatly appreciated and they would often win a medal.
In the meantime, his daughter Westerly who has always been supportive of her father’s project was working for a gourmet food wholesaler that specialised in Australian produce. Westerly has always had a passion for food, and upon her completion of catering college, she joined the kitchen team at three hatted Sydney restaurant Bilson’s.
“I never wanted to end up as a chef; I just wanted to get the experience from a professional kitchen. I always wanted to work with food, and I found myself drawn to the producer side of things and connecting chefs with their produce.”
Westerly moved on from the kitchen into sales and marketing and joined a gourmet wholesaler, which would subsequently supply her father’s oil to restaurants and chefs. In 2007 as the brand Alto (High) Olives was finally established, Westerly redirected her full attention to the brand and left her current job to devote 100% to Alto Olive.
Today, Robert and Westerly work in close cooperation to develop the different blends, and have throughout the years developed a broad range of extra virgin olive oils. By offering the market this range of flavour profiles is what makes the Alto brand stand out and differentiate them from many other producers.
Out of the 15 varieties of olives they grow today, most of the species are of European descent, but they do also produce a unique variety, which is called Hardy’s Mammoth (named after the famous winemaker Thomas Hardy)
All the different varieties offer their own unique flavour, and although they are all processed separately, it’s up to Westerly and her dad to blend the right ratios together. Not all of the olives are used for oil, they do also produce significant numbers of naturally brined table olives and these olives are all handpicked and processed and fermented on site in rainwater and Australian sea salt.
Hand picking olives is a time consuming and high maintenance process and that Robert and Westerly have made into a family tradition, and as the harvest falls around Easter, they invite friends and relatives to help them pick the fruit. A lovely tradition that unites generations and allows them to show appreciation for the land and the fruit that it brings them. Once the table olives have been picked, it’s time for the big harvest, and due to the large quantities, this is done by machine. These olives are then transferred, (separated by variety) to a nearby independent processing facility, where well-trained professionals centrifugally (press) the olives to gently extract the oil.
Westerly and her father have throughout the years, become olive oil experts and are often asked to participate as judges in competitions around Australia. Similar to wine, there are a lot of characteristics to look for when tasting olive oil, and flavour can often vary distinctively depending on what type of the varietal of olive and the level of ripeness when it was picked.
In the Alto range, there are currently six different types of oils, Alto Pro, Alto Vividus, Alto Robust, Alto Delicate, Alto Lemon and Alto Mandarin.
Within this range, there are two kinds of core table oils: Robust and Delicate and as the names suggest they are on either end of the spectrum when it comes to extra virgin olive oil styles. These are the oils that people can use to serve on the table, to finish a dish or dress a salad, depending on the ingredients and type of cuisine. The Alto Vividus is a single varietal extra virgin olive oil made from the Hardy’s Mammoth varietal, and has a unique flavour and offers a tropical and fruity character which is very unique for this particular olive variety. They also have infused oils, one with lemon and one with mandarin. Westerly explains that throughout her cooking she has found that citrus and extra virgin olive oil are a natural pairing that really compliments each other and that’s why they chose to work with these fresh, natural flavours rather than more traditional flavours like garlic or rosemary. As mentioned, Alto Olives also produce a large range of naturally brined table olives as well as a range of vinegar (chardonnay– and merlot vinegar.)
So what should you look out for when purchasing olive oil, how do you know if it’s a high-quality oil?
“There are a couple of things that determine whether an olive oil is a high-quality extra virgin or not.
“First of all, from a chemical perspective, free fatty acidity must below 0,8% by IOC (International Olive Council) standards. To make a premium extra virgin olive oil, we think that the free fatty acidity should be coming in below 0,6% and year on year Alto extra virgin Olive Oils all come in at less than 0,2%
“Secondly all extra virgin olive oils must be organoleptically assessed either by a tasting panel or an award judging scenario. All Australian extra virgin olive oils with the AOA ( Australian Olive Association) code of practise insignia have been tested for quality so that you know that you are getting exactly what you are paying for.”
To taste Alto Olives range of oils and products you can visit them at the Carriageworks Farmers Market or the Pyrmont Market. You can also find their product in a range of gourmet greengrocers and delis around Australia. Look out for this years pressing which will be available from late June, early July.
Visit Alto Olives website for more information
Written by: Kristin Jonasson