Olives and olive oils are fast becoming a staple of South African dinner tables and kitchens but, as with most culinary treats, all things are not as equal as they seem. This country’s rich soil has become home to several fine varieties – or ‘cultivars’ as they are known – of fruit yielding olive tree. These produce many of the high quality oils and table olives you can find on supermarket shelves right now, and below is a rough guide to some of the most common olive cultivars found in South Africa.
This is currently South Africa’s most popular cultivar. It is highly adaptable and dual-purpose as it produces both table olives and oil. The fruit bears early, but ripens late, and is firm even when ripe. This American cultivar produces both black and green olives, although its oil yield is often lower than other cultivars at 12-16%.
This is the ideal black table olive, and its oil content is lower than Mission. This cultivar originated in Greece, south of the Peloponnese, and demand for the olives it produces is growing internationally. The olives are harvested ripe and processed naturally in brine so the flesh retains its characteristically firm quality.
This cultivar may be used to produce table olives, although it finds its primary use in producing oil and acting as a pollinator for other cultivars. The oil produced from this cultivar is high quality, sharply flavourful, fruity and high in antioxidants. The fruit reaches a medium size and this Italian cultivar has an oil content of 18-20%.
This Spanish cultivar is suited to producing excellent green table olives, while its oil content is a low 10%. The fruit is valued for the ease of its pit removal and the superb quality of its flesh. It is often harvested before ripening, as the flesh softens at this point, unless it is being used for oil extraction.
This is an Italian cultivar with an oil yield of 18-20% and consistent levels of high productivity. The fruit requires little force to remove it from the tree and ripens evenly, meaning it is ideally suited to mechanical harvesting, and produces delicate oil that lacks bitterness.
Another Italian cultivar that is suited to producing 19-24% oil content with a strong peppery flavour and high polyphenol levels – great for encouraging ‘good’ cholesterol and antioxidant levels.
These are just a few of the varieties of olive grown in South Africa, but there are as many as 15 different types grown in total. Other major varieties include Favolosa, Baruoni, Barnea, Arbequina and Hojiblanca. Next time you’re out buying olive oil, try and spot which varieties each bottle contains!