Text and photographs Ron Swilling
More than 3 000 olive trees grow in one of the sparsest regions of Namibia – Ron Swilling found out more …
Sparse vegetation is visible as you drive out of the coastal town of Swakopmund into the Namib Desert. Tawny sands are strewn with small scrubby bushes that battle against the harsh elements for survival, and a green line of olive trees surprisingly threads its way through the desert.
This southward-pointing arrow of emerald marks the route of the ephemeral Swakop River, which, although dry for most of the year, provides brackish yet life-sustaining underground water sufficient to cultivate asparagus and olive trees. It is here that I receive my introduction into the intriguing world of olives.
Coral and Wim van der Plas have 3 200 olive trees growing on their farm, Ruheleben, meaning ‘peaceful living’, the name they have given their olives and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. In the cool, vaulted cellar, amidst large containers of olive oil and an Italian pressing machine, I discover that olive-oil tasting is similar to wine-tasting insofar as an olive connoisseur recognises grassy and peppery nuances in the golden fluid, which is sniffed and swirled in the mouth. Different cultivars produce tastes that differ subtly, ranging from the soft, smooth flavour of freshly-cut green grass and a peppery tingle that lingers at the back of the throat like a child who doesn’t want to go to bed.
Although Wim was the visionary who planted the seven olive cultivars on Ruheleben, it fell to his wife Coral to deal with the baskets of olives deposited at her back door
Although originating in Mediterranean countries, the olive tree happily produces its fruit in the African desert, taking five to six years to mature sufficiently to yield fruit that can be harvested. Much to my surprise, I learn that green and black olives are different stages in the ripening process and that a large tree, depending on the cultivar, can yield approximately 22 kilograms of olives in a season, which will produce three to four litres of oil.
Although Wim was the visionary who planted the seven olive cultivars on Ruheleben, it fell to his wife Coral to deal with the baskets of olives deposited at her back door. She jumped in at the deep end, read up hastily in books and on the Internet and succeeded through trial and error. The first thousand kilograms that filled her kitchen were a grandiose olive experiment.
Teddy Pay was employed to assist with the sheer volume. With his own keen interest in curing olives, he soon grasped the methods employed by Wim and Coral, whose high standards of quality dictate very specific requirements for their olives.
The addition of the Molínetto olive press was the next step, enabling them to extract the oil, discovering along the way which cultivars produced the finest oil. The less palatable olive oil was given to the Katutura soap-making project for use in the production of their attractive soaps.
Large cellars were built to keep the oil cool and to provide the space for a manufacturing plant. The olive team now comprises Coral at its head; Teddy, who manages the enterprise, press and day-to-day work in the cellar; his assistant Fillipus Sakhria; and Tommy Cronje, who oversees the outside garden and pruning of the trees.
Olive growing requires patience and fortitude, awaiting the oval fruit and gauging the perfect moment for picking when they are ripe but firm, and then the long curing process
My visit continues. Juicy, rich Mission Olives are scooped up from a bucket of brine topped with olive oil, the delicious result of two years of progress: purple-black globules of succulent taste.
The Ruheleben gold is bottled in elegant long-necked glass bottles with attractive labels designed by local artist Koos von Ellinckhuijzen, while restaurant owners buy it in larger volumes, taking advantage of the ‘on your doorstep, as fresh as you can get’ olive produce to rival overseas varieties.
Before we leave the cellar to walk amongst the healthy rows of trees adorned with green fruit hanging like early Christmas decorations, I taste a different cultivar of olive oil. It catches in my throat once again. “If you cough it means good quality oil,” Coral assures me, and I realise the distance they have covered in only their second season to produce the top-quality liquid gold.
But olive growing is a process that requires patience and fortitude, awaiting the oval fruit and gauging the perfect moment for picking when they are ripe but firm, and then the long curing process. Black olives are ready to be bottled after only three months, while the less-ripe green olives can take six to eight months to reach the table. Says Coral: “You can’t hurry them along, they will mature in their own time.” And, like many things in life, the results are worth the wait.
Coral’s favourite salad dressing
50 ml wine vinegar (or apple cider)
A tablespoon of sugar
A teaspoon of salt
A handful of coriander
(or any other fresh herb – basil, parsley and dill are also delicious options)
250 ml olive oil
Mustard to taste
Blend in a food processor and store in the fridge. Enjoy.
This article originally appeared in the Flamingo August 2011 edition.