September 08, 2003
The “world of olive oil” is a phrase which is in frequent use these days but not many people appreciate that olive oil really is a world commodity. Europe may still dominate the market but Argentina and Australia are set to become significant players in the next three or four years. Add to this the oils from California, Mexico, South Africa, New Zealand and Chile which are appearing in their home markets and experimental work in China and elsewhere which could produce significant amounts of oil in the future.
Nor are these newer oils set to remain in their home markets. Some of them are already chasing the export markets of the world and more will need to do so as competition at home heats up. The criteria for inclusion in my latest book “Judy Ridgway’s Best Olive Oil Buys Round The World” was that an extra virgin oil must not only come up to exacting taste and flavour standards but must also be on sale in either the US or the UK or be available on the internet.
I carried out all the tastings in 2002 and was able to include eight Californian oils, nine Australian oils, four New Zealand oils, two South African oils and one Uruguayan oil accounting for around 20% of a total of around 125 oils. I have great hopes of increasing this percentage in the next edition.
A very interesting aspect of my researches has been the comparison of the way in which these growing new industries are tackling the international market place. In Australia emphasis is placed on the hope that all the oil will be of premium quality and that they will be able to bottle and sell them in competition not only with “estate oils” from other regions but also with the newer locally bottled brands which are hitting the northern European supermarkets.
Australian producers are also talking to the smaller European packers, mainly in Italy, about supplying oil mid-way through the European season. This could act as a fall-back position if the premium oil strategy fails and has the attraction to the Europeans of new oil at a time when stocks might be starting to fall and or to deteriorate. The 2003 market would have been a great year to illustrate the sense in such a strategy as the European harvest was a particularly bad one in terms of quality.
Argentina seems to be taking a different course. It is difficult to find any olive oil in the European market which is labeled as coming from Argentina. The strategy here seems to depend more on selling into the commodity market to the international olive oil packers or keeping to the home market.
It is, of course, too early to see how the other new producers plan to go, but there are already some South African and New Zealand oils pushing into specialist retailers and foodie websites.
There is a good deal of confidence in the newer producing areas and this is how it should be but complacence should be avoided. Any idea that Europe is somehow resting on its laurels and getting lazy is quite wrong. My recent travels have shown that traditional producers are well aware that innovation is the best way to keep on top.
New ideas range from the introduction by a single producer of a frozen olive oil which is sent out by mail order and marketed as “straight from the press” to the increasing number of producers who are taking up the new system of removing the stones from the olives before pressing the flesh for oil. Others are going even further and following the “Veronelli” system of defining microclimates and keeping varietals separate. For more information on these two innovations see the section on Tuscany in the Travel Diary on my website at www.oliveoil.org.uk