30 Jan 2024

An Italian chef on the global olive oil shortage

From Nights, 10:30 pm on 30 January 2024
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Photo: Pixabay

If you’ve been hefting bottles of olive oil into your trolley at the supermarket lately, you’ve probably noticed that it’s becoming increasingly expensive.

In New Zealand, olive oil costs about 60 to 90 cents more per hundred millilitres now than it did in 2022. Last year, the price of olive oil hit a 26-year high globally. The joint impact of drought, destructive wildfires and climate change have meant much smaller yields for the world's biggest olive oil providers, which has driven up prices.

That’s tough enough in the context of an ordinary household, but it’s even tougher for restaurateurs like Matteo D’Elia, an Italian chef for whom olive oil is everything. He told Nights that life without olive oil was unthinkable.

“Oil is like petrol for the car. Without that you don't go anywhere.”

D’Elia says olive oil is a crucial ingredient for Italians, for both culinary and cultural reasons.

“I grew up with olive oil, of course. And so for me it’s like blood for the human being, because wherever I go, whatever we do, we use olive oil.”

D'Elia, who is from the town of Badalucco, in the oil-producing region of Liguria, uses Spanish olive oil for cooking, and reserves Italian oil for dressings and with bread.

“I use the Spanish [oil] to cook because of course when you're cooking you will lose the proper taste of the olive oil. I want to give the maximum expression of local oil. We try to use it as raw as we can.”

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Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The shortage and related price rises have been punishing, D’Elia says. Olive oil is 300 percent more expensive, forcing many chefs to use other, lesser quality oils in order to keep costs down. He says oil production has always fluctuated, but this time feels particularly tough.

“Every year there is something new, actually. Maybe it’s karma from the northwest of Italy.

“The climate has changed and then it's too rainy, so there is too much water in the olives… I mean every year there is something that it doesn't work for us.”

D’Elia’s grandfather was a farmer, and once a year the family would go to the mill and produce oil together.

“When you start to work with it, when you start to live with it, you will understand how deep olive oil is in our culture.”

That cultural importance makes it hard for Italians to accept the use of other oils, like sunflower or grapeseed oil, D’Elia says.

“It’s not just the yellow liquid that you put on the salad.

“It’s much more than a product, it’s life."

Nalini and Colin Baruch at Leafy Ridge olive mill tasting a drop of their 21st olive harvest

Nalini and Colin Baruch of Lot 8 olive oil. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Closer to home, Martinborough olive oil producers Nalini and Colin Baruch say they have sympathy for their Mediterranean counterparts. The Baruchs have been making olive oil under their Lot 8 label since 2002 and they’re very familiar with how climate can impact flavour as well as volume.

Watching the weather closely is part of their lives, Nalini says.

“The most significant change probably we have seen has been in the last two years, with a very wet spring in 2021 and a very wet summer carried on to autumn. The 2022 year did indicate that maybe there will be some softening of the flavours of the oil, not necessarily a drop in the production of the oil.”

She says Cyclone Gabrielle also affected the total olive oil production in New Zealand; in 2022, New Zealand produced 120,000 litres of oil. In 2023, this figure dropped to just 76,000.

Olives grow faster and fruit earlier in New Zealand than in Mediterranean countries, yet the oil made here accounts for just 10 percent of the olive oil consumed here.

“The supermarket chains tend not to carry much in the way of New Zealand olive oil, because New Zealand olive oil is still in that boutique end, it's still in the specialty foods store,” Colin Baruch says.

Olives going through the deleafer

Olives ready for pressing at Lot 8. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

“It's still very much a restaurant product and there just isn't enough to go around. The low-price European oils that are coming in are the ones you will see predominantly on the supermarket shelf.”

Olive trees are robust and forgiving, so one bad year of weather is unlikely to wipe them out, Nalini says.

“While they may have an off year, one year, with enough care, they can be brought back to hold the next year or the year after.”

Growing conditions – in terms of the soil type the trees grow in, as well as climate – have an impact on taste, Nalini says. As a result, most years Lot 8 produces oil that is “quite herbaceous”.

“Just like you drink wine from around the world and you can tell whether it's new world wine… olive oil is the same.

Colin Baruch says the local olive industry has a great future, in spite of the impact of climate change on weather patterns.

“We're becoming more Mediterranean in our climate anyway.”