Written by Lilani Goonesena.
The screech of cockatoos pierces the air on a cold winter’s day. “They’re a pain in the ass,” pronounces Ken Dugan with wry affection. We are at Cockatoo Grove in Cobram on the first day of the 2015 produce tour in Victoria. Ken, who founded and sold Cobram Oil, the biggest olive oil company in Australia, now owns a historical 100-year old estate on the Upper Murray River with 20,000 olive trees on 200 acres.
“We planted these in 1997, with 100 trees to an acre in the traditional Italian style of 8 x 5 metres apart,” says Ken. “We chose mostly Italian and Spanish varieties including the popular Manzanillo. But that was subject to frost, so we ended up pulling out those 7,500 trees.” “We also had 2,500 Nevadillo Blanco, another Spanish variety. Our first harvest won two gold medals; it’s a very powerful, wonderful olive oil. But after the first three years, we didn’t get anymore fruit so we had to pull them out too.”
Today they mainly grow the world-renown Tuscan variety, Frantoio Correggiola, also called ‘Paragon’ in Australia. “It grows very well here; it’s frost tolerant, disease resistant, and has wonderful flavours,” Ken explains.
Cockatoo Grove is certified organic and Ken also produces his own organic mulch. He holds up pungent handfuls. “This is magic stuff, it’s the heart and soul of the bacteria in the soil,” he claims with enthusiasm. “When you take the fruit off the tree, you’re taking massive nutrients and minerals out of the soil. You’ve got to put it back somehow. But the synthetic stuff upsets the balance of the soil and it’s the bacteria in there that makes it all happen.” says Ken.
“During processing, the vegetable matter, pip and kernel are discarded. To that we add hay, cow poo, chicken poo, and some mushroom mulch. We follow an Australian organic standard that takes 5-6 days keeping the temperature around 55 degrees. You get this beautiful black stuff that goes back into the soil.” We step over uneven ground, crumbly soil and weeds. “This farm has more weeds than most because we can’t use any synthetic weed killers,” explains Ken. But it’s also a healthy farm that’s full of life. Cherry, mandarin and orange trees also grow readily in the rich soil.
Though it sounds romantic to own an olive grove, Ken says olive farming is just hard work. “The tree itself needs a lot of managing; pruning and cleaning to continue to get new fruit coming through.” Ken is also proud of their ‘minus 4’ processing. “Our oil is processed in less than four hours from harvest, usually at night. So you’re getting the freshest oil that you can get anywhere.”
We follow him into the processing shed where floor to ceiling stainless steel vats squat side by side. Everything is done in-house, including bottling. After washing and crushing the olives, the residue goes through a series of malaxors to separate the oil. Finally, it is put into the tanks and left to settle.
An oily palate
The varieties are stored in separate tanks and blended later. Differentiating varietal subtleties in olive oil takes a skilled palate. “A straight Manzanillo is probably too strong but you could blend it into the Correggiola. For a point of difference, you might blend a Picual,” says Ken. Under his tutelage, we taste the organic olive oil. “Put some in a little cup and warm it in your hands. Take a sip and swirl it in your mouth. You’ll get bitterness, a strong pepper flavour, that’s the polyphenols, and a flavour of grass. This is powerful oil, that’s what you pay for,” he explains.
Josh Gregory, the sous chef at Biota Dining in the Southern Highlands of NSW, loves the potency. “We use a lot of olive oil and Ken’s is one of the best I’ve tasted, very herbaceous and grassy. I’d use it with fish as it has that really nice grass note to drag it back from the ocean into the earth.” We leave Cockatoo Grove with bottles of oil tucked under our arms and its namesake still screeching overhead.