- Farmer : Margaret & John Edwards
- Brand : Matiatia grove
- Date of settlement : 1991
- Location : Waiheke, North Island, New Zealand
- Grove : 9 hectares, 1 000 trees
- Varieties : Frantoio, Koroneiki, Maraiolo, Pendolino, J-5
- Harvest : from late april to early june, using electronic combs
- Productivity : 3 000 liters per year
- Other products : lemon and mandarine infused oils
- Particulars : own one of the two mills built on Waiheke island
Waiheke is a one hour sail from Auckland gorgeous island. Aucklanders and tourists rush here, yet the hills and the mild climate of the island have also seduced a lot of winemakers. A few other people chose to grow olives instead, such as John and Margaret Edwards, whose extra-virgin olive oil is one of the most famous in New-Zealand. They had their grove planted about 30 years ago, and Margaret has become an important person in the EVOO’s world, and the only new-zealander to take part in olive oil international competitions as a judge.
In Olio Veritas – Margaret and John, what is the story of your farm on Waiheke Island ?
Margaret – We were living in Auckland in the 80s, when friends invited us to Waiheke. The island seduced us and, 10 years later, we eventually bought a house here, with a plot as we both wanted to work the land.
John – Back in those days, you could already find a few vineyards on the island, and a few olive trees. Between grapes and olives, it didn’t take us long to choose, especially as vineyards are very expensive for maintenance. We had 1 000 trees planted over our 9 hectares in 1991 and our first crop in 1997.
IOV – What is the job’s repartition between you both ?
John – We get along very well ! I’m a surgeon, and as such, I like manual works. This is a real pleasure for me to take care of the trees and the mill. Margaret, being a former nutritionist, dedicated herself to the constant upgrade of our oil’s quality and taste.
Margaret – I also took a lot of classes, here and abroad. In 2002 I attended one of the International Olive Council’s (IOC) formation in Italy, and I then followed a 2 years training at Auckland University from a great horticultural specialist.
IOV – Matiatia Grove is one of the most famous oils in New Zealand. What is so particular about it ?
John – We are very respectful of the trees and our environment. We almost never spray any chemical compounds in our grove. Yet we can’t get the organic label as most of the vineyards around us are not so moderate… As per the harvest, we use hydraulic combs that don’t hurt the trees, or less than the shakes of a mechanical harvesting.
Margaret – John forgets to talk about all the good cares he provides to the mill. In the harvest season, he spends 4 hours a day to clean it up perfectly so that rotten leftovers can’t compromise the taste of the following olives to be processed.
John – For us, quality prevails over quantity indeed. The balance of our blends is very important to us. And beyond the production, we’re also very careful about storage. Oil is a good that, poorly stored, can lose its qualities very quickly. As soon as oil flows from the mill, we pour it into stainless tanks under argon, an inert gas preventing oil from oxydation. Then we store the tanks in a 13°C cold room. Bottling only happens when an order is placed. Keeping in mind though that oil will always be fresher and better shortly after it is made.
IOV – It doesn’t seem very frequent to have one’s own mill in New-Zealand, especially for a few hectares grove. What has driven you to get one ?
Margaret – We bought our first mill in 1997, when we had our first crop. I guess that we wished to have the satisfaction of making our own oil from A to Z.
John – It was a very small mill, able to process only 50 kilos of olives per hour, although we could harvest several hundreds of kilos each day. In 2008, we bought a new one, that we still have today, able to process up to 500 kilos per hour.
Margaret – Which allowed us to process olives of other growers of the island, and also from households having a few trees in their garden and wishing to get their own oil. There is only one other mill on the island, that belongs to a winemaker who also makes small quantities of oil. We press a total of 45 tons of olives each year, of which only 6 or 7 tons are our olives.
IOV – Margaret, could we now talk about your tasting activities and your role as a judge in EVOO international competitions ?
Margaret – After the IOC’s class I attended in Italy in 2002, I was absolutely passionate about olive oil tasting and I’ve kept on practicing ever since. Practice and training are the key to tasting. In 2004, I set up and trained the first tasting panel in the country, that the IOC recognised as of 2005. New Zealand had its own certification organism for EVOO. But internal disagreements and polemics unfortunately harmed the panel’s reputation, that was dismantled in 2012. Since then, we need to have our samples sent and analyzed in Australia, which is twice as expensive. And the country lost all the tasters we had trained. But the australian certification panel lost its accreditation from the IOC a few months ago. We still don’t know where we’ll have to send our samples for analysis now…
IOV – Should we understand that there are major disagreements between olive growers in New Zealand ?
Margaret – The Olives NZ association, that decided in 2012 to dismantle the tasting panel, has nowadays half the number of members it used to have 10 years ago, as a lot of growers walked off after this decision. More generally, I’d say that there is a gap, almost a philosophical one, about the way to grow olives. This association, for example, recently financed a survey called Grove Focus Project (read our previous article about Aquiferra) that was led with a scarce scientific approach and they came to the conclusion that you need to spray countless chemicals in your grove to increase productivity. Before it rains, after it rains… I can tell you that nobody here on Waiheke Island will ever follow those recommendations.
IOV – Our final question will be more personal : how do you see the next decades for Matiatia Grove ? Have your children for example expressed the desire to take over ?
Margaret – Absolutely not ! Quite the contrary actually. As we’re getting closer to our 80s, they’ve repeatedly asked us to take it easy, which we eventually did this year, selling two thirds of our grove. We’ve kept only 3 hectares and 300 trees, but the most fruitful ones ! Beyond our personal story, it is a wider issue in the whole country : there are so few young people eager to join the olive oil business, that is not profitable enough, in comparison with other farming activities such as the dairy business for example.